DHS Misses the Mark with First Attempts at Foster Care Reform

Independent Monitors Say Agency Fell Short on Foster Home Recruitment, Didn’t Provide Data Needed to Accurately Assess Progress; Assert that State Must Fully Fund Pinnacle Plan

(Tulsa, OK) — An initial report by the three monitors chosen to assess Oklahoma’s progress on child welfare reform shows that its Department of Human Services (DHS) is failing to meet important initial goals, has been unable to provide data needed to accurately assess progress, and is facing a crisis if it doesn’t effectively address staff turnover.

The monitors, known as “Co-Neutrals,” were selected following the 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. These Co-Neutrals established the means for assessing the Pinnacle Plan, a five-year roadmap for reform developed by DHS. Their initial report, released yesterday, addressed caseworker visitations, maltreatment in care, the use of shelters and recruitment of new foster homes.

While DHS reported that it exceeded its first-year target for recruitment and approved 796 new foster homes, the report raises concerns about what comprises that figure. The Co-Neutrals found that 53 of these homes had been counted more than once, despite an earlier review of DHS data that caused the Co-Neutrals to flag duplicates as a problem. Furthermore, DHS reported to the Co-Neutrals that as of June 30th, 456 foster homes weren’t being utilized and, of those, 171 had no children for more than three months.

“The report findings are troubling, and certainly call into question whether DHS is meeting its commitments to Oklahoma’s children,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, the national advocacy organization that spurred the reform effort. “In the face of acknowledged problems, DHS has been unable to supply adequate data and has adopted some seemingly questionable practices. Perhaps most detrimental, the state has failed to increase payments to foster parents or bolster caseworker salaries, both of which are critical to create lasting change.”

The Co-Neutrals found that DHS is putting a significant amount of its recruitment efforts into encouraging families caring for young relatives to become traditional foster families. In fact, 21 out of 64 new foster homes recruited during June 2013 originally had been kinship homes. While some of these conversions appear to be acceptable, some were “joint approved” when the families indicated they only wanted to care for relatives, and others were asked to take non-kinship children on an emergency basis without prior approval as a traditional home. This process raised sufficient concerns for the Co-Neutrals to require the state to develop new protocols for approval.

The Co-Neutrals wrote that data quality issues and the practices regarding kinship conversions prevent them from confirming whether DHS achieved its foster care recruitment target for the fiscal year. In fact, the only recruitment figure that appears conclusive is one that shows the state to be falling short: during the first year of the Pinnacle Plan,DHS approved only 86 therapeutic foster homes for kids with special needs, missing its target to license 150 such homes.

Moreover, the report pointed out that because the pool of appropriate foster homes is insufficient, DHS remains overly reliant on the use of shelters for all children. But because DHS was to have eliminated shelter use for children aged 2 and younger, they have begun to bounce the youngest ones between multiple emergency foster care placements instead–an equally inappropriate option. “The Co-Neutrals urge the state to take every available step to seek and identify funding to fully implement the Pinnacle Plan,” the report states.

The funding of the Pinnacle Plan has other significant implications. While the state itself acknowledged the need to raise caseworker salaries to curtail rapid turnover, and made it a core strategy to attract and retain staff, the SFY14budget did not provide for this. The Co-Neutrals warned, “The agency’s problems with staff turnover is fast forging a new crisis on the frontlines of the organization.”

The review shows that DHS came close to reaching goal with regard to caseworkers having monthly visits with children. The Co-Neutrals also noted progress in restructuring the agency, including: the creation of the DHS Child Welfare Division, which could improve accountability and implementation of DHS policies; putting in place a new management team; and the integration of Office of Client Advocacy investigations and Child Protective Services investigations, positioning DHS to provide more complete reports on child maltreatment.

“Importantly, DHS is for the first time attempting to objectively measure and report its progress. That is itself a major step forward. We all recognized that improvement would be a multi-year process, but these early results are disappointing,” said Fred Dorwart, co-counsel on the case. “The State and the Department need to address critically how to improve services to the children in their custody.”

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.