NO one said it would be easy to implement the changes required at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services as the result of a class-action lawsuit settlement. And that's certainly proving to be the case.
An out-of-state group filed the lawsuit over the state's foster care program, alleging among other things that far too many kids were removed from homes and that children were mistreated. The state settled the lawsuit in 2012. As part of the settlement, the state approved a reform plan that touches on 15 areas of DHS.
Called the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan, it seeks to do such things as reduce caseloads for workers, increase the number of foster families and child welfare workers, and eliminate the use of state shelters for young abused and neglected children.
But it's clear Oklahoma has a long way to go.
At a meeting Wednesday of four new DHS citizen advisory panels — these groups, approved by a vote of the people, replaced the former DHS oversight board — the agency's child welfare services director, Deborah Smith, shared disappointing news.
The number of children in state custody stands at 10,428, as compared with roughly 8,000 four years ago. Smith said that growth contributed to DHS not meeting its goal of, by Dec. 31 of last year, eliminating the use of state shelters for kids younger than 2. Instead, 47 children in that age range spent at least one night in shelters during the first six months of this year.
The census growth also has hurt efforts to reduce caseloads for DHS employees. Smith said only about one-fifth of workers have caseloads that are within the range agreed upon as part of the lawsuit settlement. To meet its target, DHS must get that figure to 45 percent by year end.
She said the agency has been able to hire only about 50 workers per month during the past nine or 10 months — well below the 80 per month needed to meet the caseload-reduction goal. The Legislature has directed more money to DHS to help the agency comply with the settlement. But as Smith noted, “It's scary work. It's overwhelming.”
The news wasn't all bad. Smith said that during the fiscal year that ended June 30, DHS recruited 796 new traditional foster homes — exceeding the agency's goal by 15. The overall increase in the number of children entering the system, however, means demand for more high-quality foster homes only continues to grow. Also, DHS fell short of its target in recruiting foster homes willing to take in children with emotional problems.
It's difficult to know exactly what is driving the increase in the number of children in DHS custody. In any event it's distressing, because it reflects more badly broken homes on the front end — and the subsequent emotional toll that this exacts on kids — and places further stress on DHS at the back end.
Karen Waddell, a former DHS commissioner and president of the Lynn Institute for Healthcare Research, heads the DHS advisory panel on children and family issues. She has the right idea regarding how the state can potentially make a dent in this difficult problem of so many youngsters winding up in state custody.
“I see a lot of different groups and people and synagogues and churches and everybody saying, ‘Let's make this happen,'” Waddell said.