Discouraging signs for child welfare reform (Steve Lewis Capitol Updates)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

Steve Lewis
Steve Lewis

The “co-neutrals” issued their third report this week on DHS’ progress toward improving our child welfare (foster care) system.  The state settled a class action lawsuit in January, 2012, that was brought on behalf of children in custody of DHS.  The parties agreed to develop what became known as the Pinnacle Plan and to appoint three child welfare experts “to evaluate and render judgment about the ongoing performance of DHS to strengthen its child welfare system to better meet the needs of vulnerable children, youth and families.”

The settlement charged DHS with making improvements in the seven categories:  Maltreatment (abuse and neglect) of children in the state’s legal custody; development of foster homes and therapeutic foster homes; regular and consistent visitation of caseworkers with children in the state’s legal custody; reduction in the number of children in shelters; placement stability, reducing the number of moves a child experiences while in the state’s legal custody; child permanency, through reunification, adoption or guardianship; and manageable caseloads for child welfare staff.

In the past three years the legislature has appropriated more than $93 million to fund the Pinnacle Plan.  The report noted some significant improvements, including reduction in shelter placements for children under age six, increases in caseworker and primary caseworker visitation with children and improvements in the Office of Client Advocacy that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect in higher levels of care and institutional settings.

But the report criticizes DHS’ performance and says it needs to confront the following challenges immediately:  Inadequate supply of foster homes for children; very high caseloads; overuse of shelters for children age six and older; the backlog of child abuse and neglect investigations; long delays at the child abuse hotline; and permanency delays.  On several of these items the co-neutrals reserved judgment on whether or not DHS has made a good faith effort to achieve substantial and sustained progress toward the target outcomes.  But the most damning part of the report were findings that DHS has failed to make a good faith effort at achieving its targets in recruiting and maintaining foster homes for children; keeping children age six to twelve years out of shelters; and achieving permanency for children who have been removed from their homes.    

This report has to be discouraging to everyone involved in the child welfare system and state leaders.  Lack of good faith to me means not only a failure of performance but also a failure of effort and perhaps intention.  In reading the report the enormity of the project comes through.  When the Pinnacle Plan was developed it appeared to me both the cost, the effort and the time required was grossly underestimated.  In any effort this large, mistakes are going to be made, but changing the culture of an institution is hard work and takes time.  The problem is the kids in the system don’t have time. 

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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