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.
Lake compared the challenge of reforming child welfare services while also overhauling the agency to “building a plane while you're flying a plane.” That has been made all the more difficult by a continued increase in the number of children entering the DHS system — the census grew from 9,132 to 10,234 during FY 2013.
As the count increases, it strains an already taxed staff of case workers, which no doubt contributes to what the co-neutrals called “exceptionally high staff turnover.” The backlog of child welfare investigations stood at 1,833 as of mid-October. “To be clear: the Co-Neutrals expect DHS to implement the Pinnacle Plan as approved, including the state's commitment to raise the salaries for child welfare workers after many years of stagnancy.”
That's a message to the Legislature, which Lake said gave DHS an extra $25 million last year to kick-start the Pinnacle Plan and followed that with $32 million this year — $8 million less than Lake requested.
The monitors also stressed that Oklahoma needs more foster homes. “This shortage appears to present one of the greatest stresses for caseworkers and managers alike,” they wrote. Relieving that stress falls to Oklahomans everywhere.
Clearly, DHS has much work to do in the area of child welfare. But the co-neutrals' report provides a pretty stern message to lawmakers and the general public that they must do better, too, if DHS is going to adequately serve the state's abused and neglected children.