The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has achieved its first major reform goal of the new year by eliminating the use of state shelters for overnight stays of nearly all abused and neglected children under age 2, officials announced Wednesday.
However, shelter overcrowding remains a problem for older children in state custody, records reveal.
Despite dramatic reductions in babies at state shelters, the number of children staying overnight at the state's shelters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa actually increased from an average of 116 in November 2011 to 123 in November 2012.
Records show the Laura Dester Children's Shelter in Tulsa had an average daily population of 70 in November 2012 — seven above its licensed capacity. The Pauline E. Mayer Children's Shelter in Oklahoma City had an average daily population of 53 in November 2012 — five above its licensed capacity.
December data was not yet available from the agency.
Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for DHS, said the Laura Dester shelter is relatively new and capable of safely housing children above its licensed capacity.
When the Pauline E. Mayer shelter approaches capacity, DHS has an agreement with regulators that allows it to move some children to an annex building or two other facilities, Powell said. DHS hasn't had to move children to avoid capacity problems in Oklahoma City since shortly before Thanksgiving, she said.
DHS remains out of compliance with a 2009 state law that directed the agency to dramatically reduce the populations of its Oklahoma City and Tulsa shelters to no more than 25 each.
“It's still a struggle changing the way we do business,” Powell said. “We are going to take it a step at a time and a goal at a time, but we will get there.”
More foster parents are needed, she said.
Reducing or eliminating the use of state shelters for all age groups — but especially infants and toddlers — is one of the cornerstones of a DHS reform plan called the Pinnacle Plan. The goal is to quickly place those children in foster homes or other family-like settings.
State officials agreed to the plan as part of a settlement to a class-action lawsuit regarding the treatment of children in state custody.
Deborah Smith, director of DHS Child Welfare Services, expressed excitement about achieving the first milestone.
“This was a very important goal for our state to achieve not only for the Pinnacle Plan — it's the right thing to do for young children,” Smith said. “OKDHS cannot do this work alone and we would like to thank all Oklahomans who have stepped up recently to become foster parents. We would also like to thank all of our private partners and the faith community for helping recruit, train and support foster families.”
The rule prohibiting overnight stays for children under 2 applies to entities the agency contracts with to provide shelter services as well as state operated shelters, Powell said.
Exceptions to the rule are allowed for medically fragile children requiring 24-hour supervision, large sibling groups of four or more and teen moms with infants, DHS officials said.
Even in those cases, DHS tries to get the young children out of shelters as quickly as possible, Powell said.
Powell said Tuesday night there was only one child under age 2 in a state licensed or contracted shelter. That child was part of a large sibling group staying in a county youth shelter. The children were being placed in a home the next day, she said.
Keeping siblings together remains a goal of the agency and officials believe taking a little extra time when necessary to avoid splitting siblings is worth the trade-off, she indicated.
The next major milestone for the agency in reducing shelter usage comes June 30 when the agency is committed to ensuring that no child under age 6 spends a night in a shelter.
Under the Pinnacle Plan, the agency also has made a commitment to recruit at least 2,000 new foster families between July 1, 2012, and June 30. That would be about 500 more than were recruited the previous fiscal year.
The agency had recruited 930 new foster families by Tuesday, the midpoint of the fiscal year. That is ahead of the pace of last fiscal year but behind the pace needed to achieve the plan's goal.
Powell said individuals interested in becoming foster or adoptive parents can find out more information by visiting the website www.okbridgefamilies.com.
The Oklahoman focused attention on the problem of babies in state shelters last February when it published a series of articles and pictures revealing the plight of babies in public shelters and quoting experts who described the developmental harm being done to those children.
Numerous Oklahomans responded by contacting DHS and offering to become foster parents.
DHS officials responded, too, stepping up their recruitment of foster parents and agreeing to incremental steps that would be taken as part of the Pinnacle Plan to eliminate the use of shelters for the overnight care of abused and neglected children.
The plan is a five-year improvement plan designed to reform the state's child welfare system.
Other goals DHS has already achieved under the plan include increasing reimbursement rates for foster parents, increasing salaries for child welfare workers and restructuring the Child Welfare Division.