Oklahoma’s long journey to fix the child welfare system grows longer (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 find past Capitol Updates archived  on his website.

Photo by M&R Glasgow / CC BY 2.0
Photo by M&R Glasgow / CC BY 2.0

Recently, DHS and the advocacy group representing the plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of children in our Oklahoma foster care system agreed to extend the settlement agreement reached in 2012. The agreement was to have ended in 5 years with the successful implementation of the “Pinnacle Plan”, an ambitious set of reforms to better protect and nurture children in foster care. It had become apparent that the gains made in the past 4 years were not enough to meet the anticipated 5-year deadline. The alternative to extending the timeline would presumably have been to return to court, call off the settlement, and resume litigation.

It’s not surprising that 5 years was not enough to “fix” the child welfare system. In fact, it has been apparent from early on that the timeline was too ambitious and the funding was insufficient. In addition to money appropriated specifically for the Pinnacle Plan, DHS has had to divert funds away from services to others to supplement the reforms. And they have still fallen behind schedule. But it’s not all money. Figuring out how to protect and nurture children with multiple challenges, from mental and physical health to neglect and sexual, physical and emotional abuse issues is complex. And the results are often unpredictable. If DHS knew when they started what they know now they could probably have accomplished more sooner, but they didn’t.

The nature of a negotiated settlement is usually that neither side got what it really thought was the best answer but they got what they could “live with.” Thus the implementation of the Pinnacle Plan has been a sometimes rocky process where DHS has been under constant pressure to show results to meet an unrealistic timeline while the plaintiffs have had to try to evaluate the “good faith” of DHS in its efforts. Anyone watching this process closely or participating in it knows there have been both disappointments and successes.

It’s probably a good thing that the parties have agreed to give each other the benefit of the doubt and continue working together. But it’s worth remembering that there are young children out there depending on both the State of Oklahoma and now those who have undertaken to fight on their behalf in court to get this done right and as quickly as humanly possible. They can’t wait to grow up until the system corrects itself. Their most fundamental right is to be safe. DHS was under the supervision of a federal court for 18 years in the “Terry D.” case because of Oklahoma’s over-institutionalization of abused and neglected kids. We can’t replace institutions with unsafe, unhealthy and unstable placements. We all owe a big thanks, both to those working diligently within the foster care system and those seeking to hold them accountable, for their efforts on behalf of our kids.

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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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