The lobby of the Juvenile Justice Center in Oklahoma City feels almost like it's breathing. After 9 a.m., no door stays closed for long. Parents and children dart in and out of a few courtrooms. A wall of glass serves as a buffer to the noisy lobby, where it's not hard to overhear a custody argument or a prayer.
On a Thursday morning just after 9 a.m., child welfare specialist Grace Stevenson stands in the lobby, attempting to end a fight between two parents before someone leaves in handcuffs. The couple's 4-year-old daughter stands near her frustrated mother. The girl sings a song to herself and occasionally dances, ignoring the adults.
“Everything is a big deal to you,” the father responds after the mother lays into him about a list of mistakes he has made. “Go sit in there and relax,” Stevenson says to the father.
She later advises the mother, “You don't have to like somebody to get along.” Stevenson reminds the mother that her daughter is only 4. She has 14 more years of parenting to do.
Stevenson, 29, learned early on in life about the importance of being a good parent. At 16, she had her first daughter.
It wasn't easy finishing high school as a teen mom. And it certainly wasn't easy being a single mom with two girls while getting her master's degree. But when Stevenson was a teen mom, she remembers a teacher at Putnam City West High School telling her she could be somebody.
“Everybody is shocked that I came so far,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson has a 16-year-old girl on her caseload who lost her mother to domestic violence. The girl has been in and out of DHS custody since she was 8. Stevenson took her to Olive Garden for her 16th birthday.
Stevenson wants to be a positive role model for a girl who doesn't have one. When the girl wanted to stop taking her birth control to have a baby, Stevenson talked her down. And Stevenson is trying to get her to stop cussing people out. There are better ways to communicate.
“One little conversation changes a person's whole perspective,” Stevenson said. “I'm hoping something I do in that little girl's life she will remember. She's very smart.”
This is the type of social work Stevenson and other workers hope to do more of.
In 2012, DHS settled a class-action civil rights lawsuit against its foster care system. The result of the lawsuit was what's known as the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan. As part of the plan, DHS has agreed to hire hundreds more child welfare workers and pay them a higher wage.
Starting in the 2013 state fiscal year, entry-level child welfare specialists earn about $30,380. That's an increase from $28,570, and over the next four years, DHS has said it will continue to increase wages.
To put that in perspective, the average starting police officer salary is $40,000. An entry-level schoolteacher with a bachelor's degree makes about $31,000. Child welfare specialists are required to have a bachelor's degree.
Chapter 4: Foster families
Initially, William Starr wanted to be a basketball coach and history teacher. But after some time serving in the military and working at a police department, Starr found himself applying for a job with DHS.
Starr came to DHS after having a negative experience with the agency as a child. Without going into the details of his case, Starr explained that a miscommunication led to him being removed from his parents' home. The policy that got him removed no longer exists.
After being gone for months, Starr remembers the day he returned to his second grade classroom in Blanchard. Everybody was asking where he had been.
“I was too embarrassed to tell anybody, so I just said I was sick,” he said.
Starr's embarrassment has turned to empathy. Part of his job is to visit foster homes to check on children in custody. During an evening trip to an Oklahoma City neighborhood, he stands in a front yard with a clipboard as five siblings, ranging in age from about 2 to 11, play around him.
He asks the foster parents sitting on the porch questions, but he can't help but play with the children. He picks up a basketball they're tossing around.
“Can I shoot it?” he asks. He shoots the ball into a plastic goal that sits in the middle of the yard. It might not be the coaching job he expected, but he's happy with his outcome.
“The end goal, for me at least, is to know that at the end of the day I'm working to get kids out of the system,” Starr said.
“I would love for us to live in a perfect world where we don't have as many kids in the foster care system as we do.”
Presently, DHS has about 10,000 children in some form of custody. As part of the Pinnacle Plan, the agency plans to recruit about 2,000 foster homes, 500 more than were recruited last year.
The goal is to find those families by this year. The more foster families there are, the fewer children who have to be placed in shelters.
DHS director Ed Lake said the agency's goal is to stop placing children in shelters, unless there's absolutely no other option.
“Think about if you were a 2-year-old,” Lake said. “You're going to this shelter that has 45 other children or 80 other children ... Think how chaotic that must feel for a 2-year-old who's used to a family setting.”
Chapter 5: Reunification, termination and adoption
Like many other case workers, Katie Cooper calls the children on her cases “my kids.”
She and her husband, Luke, both work at DHS. There are times when one of them has to handle an emergency. They've tried to teach their 3-year-old daughter Mackenna what they do when they have to leave suddenly.
“She'll actually asks, ‘Mommy, is Daddy at work? Is Daddy making another kid safe?' ‘Yeah, that's what he's doing' — she gets that,” Katie Cooper said.
Some nights, she works until 9 a.m. Most nights, Cooper just hopes to make it home before her daughter's bedtime.
Cooper's job is to provide services to children who have been placed in DHS custody by a district court judge. She takes children to doctor's appointments, visits them in foster homes and takes them to see their parents.
The goal is for a child to be reunified with his or her parents. That's not always possible, but child welfare specialists are trained to try their hardest to bring the family back together.
Early one Thursday morning, Cooper picks up a 9-month-old girl who's in “trial reunification” with her mother. If the trial period is successful, the girl will go back to live with her mother.
The baby girl has been in custody since she was 2 weeks old. Cooper is the mother's third child welfare worker. This is one of the issues the agency faces with its high turnover rate.
The turnover rate for entry-level child welfare workers is almost 40 percent, but it decreases the longer a person stays with DHS. The most experienced workers have a turnover rate of about 5 percent.
Ideally, Cooper would have had the case from the time the baby girl came into custody. But often, the job doesn't put you in ideal circumstances.
For Cooper, the Pinnacle Plan offers her hope. She wants to be a “real” social worker, not the paper pusher who spends more time filing reports than interacting with families. She wants to feel like the late nights away from her daughter are spent helping her “kids.”
“Even on the days when you're not quite sure the decisions you make are the best for everybody, or if it's that gut-wrenching decision where you're just like ‘Could this be the best decision? Did I do this right?' ... you go home to your own child, and you're like ‘Every kid deserves to have the safety and stability that I hope I'm providing for my child,'” Cooper said.