THREE out-of-state experts who are monitoring the state's child welfare reform efforts rapped the Department of Human Services pretty good in their first progress report Wednesday. The report also included this message for the Legislature and the general public: Their help is also needed.
The experts, called “co-neutrals,” were understandably troubled that DHS had submitted inaccurate data related to foster homes and shelter stays by kids in state custody. DHS initially said 1,543 new foster homes and adoptive homes were recruited during fiscal year 2011. After the co-neutrals found several homes that had been double counted or shouldn't have been included, the figure dropped by nearly 400. DHS also initially reported it had signed up 796 new traditional foster homes during FY 2013, exceeding its approved target, but the monitors said 53 of those had been double counted.
DHS Director Ed Lake, who came on board after a major lawsuit settlement and is charged with implementing the state's plan to meet the settlement's mandates, says no one was cooking the books. Instead, he said the process of counting foster homes can be complicated. One home, for example, can be approved as a foster home and also an adoptive home. This can lead to it mistakenly being counted twice. “We're not double counting homes on purpose,” Lake insisted.
Of greater concern was the co-neutrals' finding that of the 1,744 foster homes DHS reported available on June 30 of this year, 456 (26 percent) had no children placed with them. Of those 456 homes, 171 had seen no placements for more than three months; 28 had no placements for more than a year, “raising serious questions about DHS' foster home practices, which of course affect the accuracy of the data.” Those questions need to be answered.
The co-neutrals expressed concern about the agency's efforts to encourage kinship foster homes — those that care for relatives — to also become traditional foster homes. Some of those kinship homes requested that non-relatives placed in their care be moved after a short period of time, which of course is detrimental to the child. This needs to be remedied.