DHS has obtained a temporary license to open a second children's shelter in Oklahoma City as its existing shelter continues to operate at near capacity.
The new license was issued at a time when DHS is under intense pressure to reduce or eliminate its use of shelters for abused or neglected children — particularly babies.
There were 42 children at the Pauline E. Mayer shelter Friday, just six under capacity, said Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Of the 42 children at Pauline E. Mayer on Friday, seven were ages 2 and under, and 12 were ages 3 through 5, Powell said. The other children were teens or preteens.
To cope with potential overflow, DHS sought and obtained a temporary 45-day license from the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth on Aug. 31. The license authorizes the agency to operate a second shelter that could house up to 16 children ages 5 and under, said Lisa Smith, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
DHS officials settled a federal court lawsuit in January by agreeing to develop and abide by a reform plan that calls for the agency to eliminate the use of shelters for abused and neglected babies under age 2 by Dec. 31 and eliminate the use of shelters for children 6 and younger by June 30. Instead of shelters, DHS will be required to place children in family-like settings.
Powell said DHS officials remain committed to those goals.
Although opening a second shelter might sound like a step backward, Powell said the agency has been making some progress.
When The Oklahoman looked into the shelter's operations last February, reporters found the facility had frequently exceeded its licensed capacity and that some babies were being kept for lengthy stays, including one baby who had been there 66 days at the time of the visit.
Powell said the average length of stay for babies 2 and under has been reduced to 1 ½ days.
“It's a constant stream of children coming into the system, which also means it is a constant effort on our part to find more foster homes,” Powell said. “This problem has not gone away. It's not going to go away. There are always going to be children who are abused or neglected that need our help. We, in turn, need the community's help to serve these children.”
“We are just at the beginning of this whole improvement process of recruiting families,” she said. “We're really going to have to recruit a lot of families to get a step ahead so we can have families who can take children before they have to go to the shelter.”
“We really need for people to step forward and help us get there,” she said.
Smith said she does not believe people should take a negative view DHS's decision to license a second facility.
“DHS is trying to be proactive,” Smith said. “We were just glad to see they were looking to provide a safety net before they needed it.”
Powell said DHS officials had not used the newly opened shelter as of Friday, but were considering using it over the weekend because they like to keep the number at the main shelter at or below 38 in case a large number of children come in at once.
DHS elected to place children at White Fields and at a group home at times this past summer when the Pauline E. Mayer shelter neared its capacity, Powell said.
White Fields, a home for abused and neglected boys, had an empty cottage on its campus that it has let DHS use in times of crisis.
At a glance
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“It's a constant stream of children coming into the system, which also means it is a constant effort on our part to find more foster homes.”