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.
The House committee on Children, Youth and Families last week considered three separate interim studies. The first concerned the new federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, a new law to redirect federal foster care funding. Importantly, it does not provide new federal funding; it just redesigns the programs. Included in the effort are new evidence-based methods to prevent children from being removed from their homes and more appropriate placements for the children who are removed. There are several problems with Oklahoma implementing this new law, the most important of which is funding. First, there is a “maintenance of effort” requirement that will require us to bring our current expenditures for the programs covered back to 2014 levels before we can claim federal funding. Second, will be finding the state funds for the 50 percent match. The federal law gives states 2 years to implement it, and it looks like Oklahoma will postpone our effort at least 1 year.
The second study was a presentation by the Child Care Association outlining the challenges of licensed child care providers. As with so many state services, the subsidy paid by DHS to the providers for the benefit of qualified low-income families is not enough. The payment the providers must collect from the families is too high for many of them. The most difficult part of the hearing was a presentation by a provider about the difficulties of the families whose children she cares for. Most of them are single mothers who are going in the hole financially every month, some by hundreds of dollars. One mom walks 5 miles each day to bring her two children to the child care agency, then another mile to work. The child care agency tries to help her in bad weather when they can. Only by not having a car payment, insurance, etc., is she able to get by on her budget. The below subsistence level living of many of these families is hard to hear about.
The final study was about efforts to shorten the time children are in foster care. Oklahoma is near the top in average time out-of-home before a family is reunified. The committee heard discussion of a bill offered last session by Rep. Mark Lawson (R-Sapulpa) at the request of “Still She Rises”, a non-profit in Tulsa, that would have made several changes in juvenile court proceedings to shorten out-of-home placement. To a child, “every day counts” when she is away from her family. Even where the child is neglected or abused at home, trauma also occurs when the child is removed and remains away from family. It’s important to remove a child only when necessary and to return the child as soon as the family can care for her.
You can’t go to a meeting like this without coming away with the feeling that, although there is a lot of good work being done, we are losing ground. Trying to prevent children from being removed from home, subsidizing quality child care for people who cannot afford it, and getting foster children back home as soon as safely possible are all related. They all cost money, and they don’t even deal with the underlying causes of why these children and families find themselves in the predicament they’re in. Better education and job training, better health care, more mental health and addiction treatment will attack these underlying challenges, but they cost money, too. Thanks goes to the legislators who are grappling with these difficult issues.