Two Expert Reviews Find OK Child Welfare Plagued by Mismanagement, Dysfunctional Computer System

TULSA, OK — Following the release of two damning expert reports exposing serious risks of harm to children in Oklahoma’s foster care system, two additional expert reviews released today by national advocacy group Children’s Rights reveal many of those dangers can be linked to a disturbing lack of oversight among all levels of the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and a seriously flawed computer system that produces inaccurate and unreliable child welfare reports.

One report (PDF), issued by former Tennessee children’s services commissioner and seasoned child welfare professional Viola Miller, details the various breakdowns among the management structure within DHS, most notably the fundamental lack of accountability and leadership even among the highest levels of DHS’s management.

Miller, after reviewing thousands of pages of DHS documents, depositions of agency staff, as well as the other expert reports released by Children’s Rights, describes DHS’s management as suffering from a “‘pass the buck’ mentality” and an “overarching failure to take responsibility for problems.”

“Leadership and accountability are crucial to a properly functioning child welfare agency and they are sorely lacking at DHS,” Miller writes.

The other report (PDF), written by computer science expert Zoran Obradovic, focuses on the vast deficiencies withinDHS’s child welfare information management and reporting system, and found that not only are the reports developed by this flawed system and used by child welfare staff often wrong or completely outdated, but the individuals charged with overseeing the system are significantly under-qualified and have little to no computer programming experience.

“Given the overwhelming evidence that continues to mount, there can be little question that the well-documented and pervasive mismanagement of Oklahoma’s foster care system is directly tied to the harm that children in its custody suffer,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights.

Miller’s report details several instances of DHS’s leadership’s failure to appropriately oversee vital child welfare programs and supervise staff. Among many examples, the head of field operations for direct child welfare services does not require any formal reports from area directors, has only limited discussions of child welfare issues with county directors — making one-on-one contact with county directors only on their birthdays — and visits local county offices only about every three years.

Poor management practices appear to permeate the entire agency. Miller found that even if area or county directors become aware of a systemic child welfare problem — such as a declining number of children being reunified with their birth families in a timely manner and failing to ensure parents have an opportunity to regularly visit with their children in foster care — there is no sense of urgency to fix it and often no steps are taken to address the issue.

Today’s report also raises serious concerns regarding DHS’s lack of a quality assurance system, causing the state to be unable to adequately assess its own performance and effectively improve practice in the field. While some county-level reviews of child welfare services are conducted yearly, these reviews rarely yield useful information, and even if real deficiencies are found, DHS lacks any mechanism that would ensure steps are taken to fix the problem.

Additionally, Miller’s report cites evidence that DHS is far more concerned with appearing to meet set timelines in child welfare cases, rather than providing quality casework for the children and families it serves. While DHS seems to track caseworkers’ monthly visits to children in foster care, senior managers are “massaging these reports to make the numbers look better,” according to the review. Recorded monthly visits aren’t necessarily completed by the child’s assigned caseworker, but often are made by other child welfare staff who are not even familiar with that child’s case.

Exacerbating these systemic problems is severe dysfunction of the state’s child welfare computer system, also known as the KIDS system. According to Obradovic’s in-depth review of that system, the head of the unit with primary responsibility for the KIDS system has not implemented any meaningful way to ensure data is accurate beyond asking staff to simply check to see if the reports “look like they work” before being sent out to child welfare workers.

Among the serious areas of dysfunction outlined in the Miller report:

  • DHS is poorly structured and organized — creating a significant disconnect between policy and practice. Because of the way DHS separates child welfare policy and service delivery into different divisions, the level of communication between these two vital entities is extremely poor and often results in the development of DHS policy without any consideration of or consultation with staff working in the field with families and children.
  • Oklahoma’s child welfare workforce is mismanaged, poorly supervised, and inadequately trained. DHS still has no reliable way to track how many total cases each child welfare worker is responsible for managing. Additionally, DHS has no unified system of tracking how many actual hours of training its child welfare staff have completed.
  • DHS’s practice of responding to a high percentage of abuse and neglect allegations with less serious “assessments” is extremely concerning. Coinciding with the recent steep decline in the number of children in state custody over a short time period, DHS has dramatically cut back investigations of alleged child abuse or neglect, and instead has increased the use of assessments that often result in suggested services to families on a voluntary basis without any formal oversight. Over the last few years, the percentage of allegations assigned as assessments has jumped from 22 percent to 58 percent, while actual investigations have declined from 78 percent to only 42 percent.
  • The state’s process of finding homes for children in foster care relies too heavily on shelters and short-term placements. Oklahoma lacks a sufficient pool of foster homes to meet the needs of the children in state custody, often forcing child welfare staff to overuse emergency shelters and shuttle children from one short-term placement to another because no stable placement option is available.
  • DHS has no meaningful process to hold private placement providers accountable. DHS often contracts with private provider agencies to find homes for children in foster care, but there is little to no accountability for the performance of these agencies. Additionally, DHS does not apply standards to the private provider agencies based on the progress or health of the children placed in their care.

Miller’s report draws direct connections from these systemic management flaws to many of the dangerous outcomes outlined in previous expert reports, including children experiencing high rates of abuse and neglect while in state custody, multiple inappropriate foster placements, and seemingly endless stays in foster care with inadequate efforts to find them permanent homes.

Miller has over four decades of experience working with and being responsible for systems providing services to children and their families, including most recently as commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services. During her time as commissioner, Miller has been credited with implementing significant reforms to improve Tennessee’s child welfare system, including the dramatic decline in the number of foster children forced to live in institutions and a significant reduction in caseloads for child welfare staff. Miller has also served on the executive committee for the American Public Human Services Association and the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators.

Obradovic currently serves as director of the Center for Information Science and Technology at Temple University and has published over 200 articles, books chapters, and conference articles on topics ranging from biomedical informatics to data mining and knowledge systems. Obradovic’s extensive work has also received grants from organizations such as the National Institution of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Today’s reports are the latest in a series of expert reports Children’s Rights has released over the last month. In February, a report issued by the Center for the Support of Families found one out of eight children in a massive case record review had suffered confirmed abuse or neglect in DHS’s custody.

Another alarming report issued just last week discovered that several children who suffered harm while living in group homes and institutions were never seen by a DHS investigator. That report, issued by child welfare expert John Goad, also found that the deaths of least five children in foster care could have been prevented had DHS not missed opportunities to take preventative action.

Children’s Rights joined local Oklahoma law firms Frederic Dorwart Lawyers and Seymour & Graham and the international firm Kaye Scholer in filing a federal lawsuit in February 2008 seeking widespread reforms throughout the Oklahoma child welfare system on behalf of more than 10,000 abused and neglected children statewide who depend on the system for protection and care. The federal judge presiding over the case denied a motion by DHS to dismiss the case in January 2009, and, in May 2009, ruled that the case could proceed as a class action on behalf of all children in DHS custody. DHS subsequently appealed that decision, and a federal appeals court unanimously upheld the district court’s decision in February 2010, allowing the case to proceed as a class action.

The full text of the new expert reports released today and more information about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Oklahoma’s child welfare system can be found at www.childrensrights.org/oklahoma.