Oklahoma has gotten off to a rocky start in its initial efforts to implement child welfare reforms as part of a settlement agreement to a federal class-action lawsuit.
State Department of Human Services officials have submitted inaccurate data concerning foster home recruitment and shelter stays by children in state custody, according to the initial report released Wednesday by three out-of-state experts hired to monitor Oklahoma's compliance with the settlement agreement.
The state also has jeopardized reform efforts by failing to fully deliver promised annual pay increases for child welfare workers and foster parents, the report said.
“The report findings are troubling, and certainly call into question whether DHS is meeting its commitments to Oklahoma's children,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, the national advocacy organization that filed the lawsuit against DHS.
“In the face of acknowledged problems, DHS has been unable to supply adequate data and has adopted some seemingly questionable practices. Perhaps most detrimental, the state has failed to increase payments to foster parents or bolster caseworker salaries, both of which are critical to create lasting change.”
Lowry told The Oklahoman that her organization is so concerned by the report that it plans to file a formal complaint with the out-of-state monitors that could lead to the state being ordered to comply with its agreed upon reform plan.
DHS Director Ed Lake called his agency's reform efforts “a work in progress.”
“It's not a sprint. It's a marathon,” he said.
The outside monitors found that DHS repeatedly overcounted the number of new foster and adoptive homes it had recruited in reports the agency submitted.
DHS officials initially reported that 1,543 new foster and adoptive homes were recruited in fiscal year 2011, but that number was later lowered to 1,169 after the overseers identified numerous homes that had been double counted or otherwise should not have been included.
DHS also initially reported it had recruited 796 new traditional foster homes during fiscal year 2013 — 15 more that the agency's approved target.
However, the monitors said 53 of those homes had been double counted.
Lake said counting foster homes is more complicated than it sounds, because homes can be approved for various types of care.
For example, the same home can be approved as both a foster home and an adoptive home, which can lead to it being mistakenly counted twice, depending upon how data is gathered.
“We're not double counting homes on purpose,” Lake said. “Nobody's trying to manipulate the data.”
The overseers expressed concerns that more than a fourth of the 1,744 resource homes that DHS reported as being open and available on June 30 had no children placed in them, even though the state has been keeping children in shelters while complaining of a shortage of available foster homes.
Of the 456 foster homes with no children on the last day of June, 171 had not had a child in three months and 28 had not had a placement for more than a year, the report stated.
The data raise “serious questions about DHS' foster home practices,” as well at the process the agency uses for closing homes that are no longer accepting child placements, the report stated.
Overseers said their review of cases also raised concerns that DHS workers have been pushing kinship homes that provide foster care for relatives to also provide foster care or emergency foster care for non-relatives — even in cases where records indicate the providers had indicated they only wanted to care for relatives.
Lowry called the tactic “extremely questionable” and said it can lead to children being bounced around among placements, which she said is harmful.
Lowry joined the out-of-state monitors in voicing concern about the agency's high turnover rate and its backlog of 1,833 child welfare investigations.
“The situation is quite dangerous to children,” Lowery said, describing Oklahoma's backlog as the biggest she has seen in any state.
Overseers said that after some initial success in reducing the number of infants and toddlers in state shelters, the numbers have increased in recent months as the agency has struggled with an increase in the number of children taken into state custody.
The overseers did praise DHS for its progress in some areas, including its reorganization of the agency to create a Child Welfare Division and its appointment of a new leadership and management team.
Lake said trying to make child welfare reforms while going through such a drastic overhaul has been a challenge.
“In some cases, this is sort of like building a plane while you're flying a plane,” Lake said.
“We've made progress in a lot of areas, but the context is, unfortunately, we still feel like we're paddling upstream because of the influx in the number of children in custody. The increased numbers put more pressure on everything else we're trying to do.”
Lake said DHS has accelerated its hiring of child welfare workers, but it takes time to get employees trained and out in the field.
“We're committed to funding and carrying out every initiative of this plan,” Lake said.