Court-ordered monitors find Oklahoma falling short in efforts to fix foster care system

OKPinnaclePlanSM_cfsd_02142012Almost two years after finalizing an historic plan to transform its child welfare system, a new report finds that the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) is falling short of making “good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress” on several key benchmarks. Unfortunately, a growing number of abused and neglected children and the enormity of the challenges facing the system will continue to hinder efforts to ensure the safety of Oklahoma kids.

Since 2012, Oklahoma’s child welfare reform effort has been guided by the Pinnacle Plan, which was developed by DHS out of a settlement agreement reached in a federal class action lawsuit. Oklahoma’s foster care system was found deficient for allowing abuse of children in its care, placing children in overcrowded and understaffed emergency shelters, and failing to provide secure and long-term placements, among other concerns.  The settlement agreement assigned a team of three independent experts, known as the Co-Neutrals, to approve the agency’s plan and monitor its implementation. The Co-Neutrals issued their first formal Commentary in October 2013 (We have previously discussed the Pinnacle Plan and Co-Neutral findings here and here).

In their second Commentary on Pinnacle Plan progress, released in April, the Co-Neutrals state that throughout their review process, they “have been impressed by the commitment of DHS caseworkers and supervisors to strengthen the Oklahoma child welfare system so that it works better for children and families.” Yet the results so far have fallen short of expectations in some key areas, particularly the “two foundational pillars of reform”: increasing the supply of foster homes for children found to be suffering from abuse and neglect, and reducing caseloads for DHS workers.

The Co-Neutrals found that there is still a serious shortage of available foster homes. The Pinnacle Plan called for developing 1,197 new foster homes by the end of SFY 2014; half-way through the year, only 345 were developed, 29 percent of the target. Compared to the target of a net gain of 615 open foster homes for the year, only 50 open homes had been added after six months.  Meanwhile, there has been no increase at all in the number of therapeutic foster homes  available for children with special needs. The Co-Neutrals concluded that these outcomes “do not represent good faith efforts.”

Several factors are responsible for the poor foster home outcomes. DHS has shifted to contracting with private agencies to provide foster care services, but the initial  contracts were cancelled and the process ended up delayed almost 11 months. The growing number of children in DHS care has strained the capacities of the entire child welfare system. And while the agency granted an initial increase in foster care reimbursement rates in 2013, a second increase was deferred when the legislature failed to fully fund DHS’ FY 2014 appropriations request. The rate increase took effect in May.

In the area of staff caseloads, the Co-Neutrals conclude that they “do not yet find evidence that workloads are improving in a substantial and sustained direction.” As with reimbursement rates for foster care homes, DHS granted an initial salary increase to child welfare workers in FY 2013 but deferred the scheduled FY 2014 increase until April due to inadequate funding. The Co-Neutrals will wait until their next report to judge whether the agency has exhibited good faith efforts in the area of caseloads.

One area where the report did find good faith progress is in the elimination of emergency shelter placement for children under the age of 2. However, for older children, especially those over the age of 6, shelter usage is actually increasing. This is tied both to the shortage of available foster homes and to practices of only looking for placements after children have been removed from their homes.

On the remaining Pinnacle Plan goals – reducing instances of child maltreatment in care, increasing caseworker visitation,  ensuring placement stability, and achieving permanency – the Co-Neutrals mostly focused on issues of data collection and reporting, in several cases noting that available data is lacking or inconsistent.

Under the settlement agreement, the Co-Neutrals can impose remedies on DHS if it fails to meet the plan’s targets, which can be converted into enforceable court orders.

In its response to the Co-Neutrals’ report, DHS challenged the findings that it had failed to make good faith efforts in certain areas of the Pinnacle Plan, and emphasized areas where it had made strides. “We are headed in the right direction but it will take time to get to where we want to be,” DHS Director Ed Lake said. “This is still only the second year of a five-year improvement plan and we still have much work ahead.” DHS’ Child Welfare director shared data showing strong recent improvement in their efforts to recruit more foster care families.

In order to stay on track with the Pinnacle Plan, DHS requested a $57 million increase in appropriations for FY 2015 – $35.9 million for Year 3 of the Plan and $21.3 million to annualize increases only partly paid for in Year 2. The budget agreement provides for the $35.9 million Year 3 increase and $7.7 million for additional pay raises.  Since other critical DHS requests went unfunded, including $8.3 million to cover declining federal Medicaid funds, it’s not clear how or if DHS can pay for the next round of scheduled rate and salary increases, increase staffing levels, and expand services as intended. 

Faced with enormous challenges, DHS can credibly claim it is doing its best.  But it remains to be determined if that’s good enough..     

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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