Oklahoma lawmaker wants foster care changes

BY RANDY ELLIS Modified: March 1, 2010 at 2:25 pm •  Published: February 28, 2010

For years, Oklahomans have been deluged by reports of children being killed and subjected to horrific abuses while in state custody.

A New York-based child advocacy group found reports so disturbing it filed a federal lawsuit designed to force reforms to the system.

Now state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, thinks he has come up with a legislative solution: Privatize Oklahoma foster care — or at least part of it.

Blackwell said he believes getting nonprofit groups and churches more directly involved with foster care would create better opportunities for children.

"One of the key things I want to do is give a community ownership of this special opportunity,” Blackwell said. "Right now, a lot of times these kids are seen as the state’s problem instead of something that is an opportunity for their community.”

Howard Hendrick, director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said only a couple of states have privatized foster care and they have had mixed results.

Blackwell said he is looking to Florida as one of his models.

Just eight years ago, Florida’s child welfare system was criticized for being one of the worst in the nation following disclosures that some 500 to 600 children had simply vanished from that state’s foster care system, with state officials unable to account for their whereabouts.

Blackwell, however, said Florida has made vast improvements.

"We’re able to look at the problems they encountered and learn from their mistakes,” he said. "Over the last 10 years they have seen an increase in the adoption rate of about 30 percent. That’s my long-term goal. It’s not to save money. It’s not to get out of a lawsuit. It’s to, in the long term, provide a stable family environment for kids that right now are in foster care.”

Blackwell said he doesn’t see one big nonprofit organization taking control of the state’s foster care system, but rather a system where organizations, local churches and nonprofit groups would emerge to lead placement efforts.