Pinnacle Plan: DHS Fails to Make Significant Strides, Says New Report

Independent Monitors Find State Is Not Making ‘Good Faith Efforts’ Toward Reform in Some Areas; Question Sufficiency of Data in Others

(Tulsa, Oklahoma) — Independent monitors charged with assessing Oklahoma’s child welfare reform effort found that the Department of Human Services (DHS) is unable to demonstrate positive change in any of seven agreed-upon performance areas–and has not made “good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress” in the key measure of increasing foster homes.

The monitors, known as “co-neutrals,” were selected following the January 2012 settlement of D.G. v. Yarborough, a class action lawsuit asserting that Oklahoma was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to protect children in state care. The monitors assess implementation of the Pinnacle Plan, DHS’ five-year roadmap for reform, and release bi-annual reports that discuss advances and pitfalls.

The second report, released today, shows little progress, including in three areas where the monitors encouragedDHS to put an “initial, intense focus”:

  • Recruiting foster homes. Monitors established a net gain target of 615 new foster homes during State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2014. Thus far DHS has achieved a net gain of 50 foster homes, only 8 percent of the goal. Reasons for this may include DHS’ considerable difficulty managing the selection of private agencies to recruit families, and a failure thus far to increase foster care board payments to levels proposed in the Pinnacle Plan.
  • Reducing shelter use. While the practice of placing young children in shelters has declined substantially under the Pinnacle Plan, the shortage of family foster homes means that some of these children are moving to equally inappropriate placements. Meanwhile the number of children aged 6 to 12 who are placed in shelters is on the rise. There is a similar trend for children aged 13 and over.
  • Decreasing caseloads. When Children’s Rights and co-counsel filed D.G. v. Yarborough, DHS was routinely assigning its employees more than 50 children each, and some carried caseloads of more than 100 children. Based on preliminary data, monitors “do not yet find evidence that workloads are improving in a substantial and sustained direction and DHS will need to demonstrate very significant movement over the next several months.”

“It is disheartening that Oklahoma seems unable to prioritize the needs of its most vulnerable citizens,” said Frederic Dorwart of Tulsa law firm Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers, co-counsel in the lawsuit. “Children in state care, who already have suffered horrifying trauma, deserve nothing less than good homes and the full attention of those overseeing their cases. The state’s practices continue to expose children to harm and the threat of harm.”

While DHS is clearly falling short in several key areas, in others it doesn’t even have a reliable baseline for measuring what is happening to children. On the critical issue of maltreatment in care, for example, DHS and the monitors found that the data DHS submitted to establish a baseline had not been subject to any internal verification by DHS over the years, causing the monitors to formally withdraw previously published baselines and targets.

The monitors are also unable to accurately measure the frequency of caseworker visitation until DHS is able to show that visits occurred between a child and authorized caseworker.

“Oklahoma’s efforts to date are a continuation of the harmful state practices that required the lawsuit in the first place,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Although the people in charge have changed and the buck now stops with the governor, children are not any better off. The difference is that there are independent monitors who can obtain court orders against the state if there are continuing failures.”

The monitors noted that during two years of reviewing hundreds of pages of DHS information and data and convening numerous meetings with stakeholders, certain consistent themes have emerged. “DHS is struggling to keep up with the growing needs of children in care; foster parents often receive minimal or inaccurate information when children are placed, hampering the foster parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs; and many worker caseloads are excessive, having a negative impact on staff’s ability to share ongoing information and respond to requests for assistance.”

Children’s Rights, Oklahoma law firm Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers, and the international law firm Kaye Scholer filed the lawsuit D.G. v. Yarborough in federal court in February 2008.