Office of Juvenile Affairs makes improvements, but more work needed (Capitol Update)

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.

Last week the Office of Juvenile Affairs Board of Directors (OJA) approved a new, higher rate for some group home beds. They will provide intensive services to potentially aggressive or violent youths in OJA custody who need specialized mental health treatment. Several months ago, OJA asked mental health organizations for their best ideas for treating these kids if given the opportunity. I’m guessing the new rates signal an effort to implement some of these proposals. Thanks to OJA for its forward-thinking approach. It’s a truism that the earlier a child can get help to avoid involvement in the criminal justice system the better the likelihood of success. Some of these kids, with the right help, can avoid incarceration as adults. When they do, it will save a lot of heartache for them and their families and potential victims-and a lot of money for taxpayers.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) also has group homes for kids in their custody, some of whom are aggressive and violent. I’m not sure how the new OJA special rates will compare with the current DHS rates. Youth service workers and therapists who work with both OJA and DHS kids can often be heard to say they are really the same kids. In fact, some of the DHS kids are just as or more difficult to care for than the OJA kids. The OJA kids are in custody because they committed an offense that brought them to juvenile court charged as “delinquent.” The DHS kids are in juvenile court as “deprived” because they have been abused or neglected. Sometimes the only difference is who got caught first, the kid or the parent.

I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting with one of the “co-neutrals” who is monitoring the DHS Pinnacle Plan that resulted from the federal lawsuit on behalf of kids in DHS custody. These are the “deprived” kids who are in out-of-home custody under the supervision of DHS. They could be in a foster home, a group home or a temporary placement. The co-neutral said more foster homes, therapeutic foster homes and group homes are badly needed in Oklahoma. Although the number of children in regular foster care is larger, there is a critical need for more group homes and therapeutic foster homes. In fact, the number of therapeutic foster homes has decreased from the past.

It’s hard to find families who will care in their home for kids with difficult physical or mental health and behavioral issues. The families who do need a lot of support, not just money but therapeutic support, respite and case management. That kind of help costs money, as the OJA board recognized with its action last week for the kids in its custody. Hopefully, some of the work OJA is doing can be useful to DHS kids with the same issues. To many taxpayers fortunate enough not to have been directly touched in their own lives with these challenges, all this may sound like something to “throw money at.” But like it or not life has gotten a lot more complicated—in many instances producing huge benefits we take for granted. As to the resulting difficulties for children, as the saying goes, “you can pay me now or pay me more later.”


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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