Oklahoma's use of shelters for displaced children disputed
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2012
2/20/12 at 8:00 AM
On a Friday night in January, 12 children from four families were brought to the Laura Dester Emergency Shelter in Tulsa after authorities determined they were no longer safe in their homes.
Police and social workers provided comfort as they waited to finish the intake assessments. Staff members were called in the middle of the night to help the children get settled.
Because of the hour, the children - who arrived with only the clothes on their backs - stayed the night. Some were there several nights.
"It was packed," said Kay Saunders, the shelter's director. "It's unusual, but it happens."
As national experts push for Oklahoma to lower its overcrowded shelter populations and eliminate shelter use, officials with the Department of Human Services say the facilities offer an immediate safe haven option.
"Children need to be with families," said Deborah Smith, DHS director of the child and family services division. "In emergency situations, you need to go somewhere to make a safe decision and safe placement. The other option would be to do this in a car or at DHS offices."
That is not a reason for shelter use, said the executive director of the child advocacy nonprofit that sued the state over its child-welfare system. A settlement agreement in the lawsuit, filed in 2008, is pending.
"That's an excuse," said Marcia Lowry of Children's Rights. "Why on earth should there be shelters? They are institutions and children belong in families. Whether they are beautiful, lovely institutions or buildings with holes in walls, both are bad for little kids. You can and should recruit foster homes, particularly for young children."
The Tulsa shelter opened in October 2010, replacing a deteriorating 1940s facility.
The new $12.5 million campus was built with state and federal funds, bonds and private donations, including $2.14 million from the Tulsa Community Foundation through a capital endowment campaign.
The Tulsa shelter is licensed for 63, but exceeded that for 20 days in January and 19 days in December. Overcrowding in Oklahoma City's shelter has resulted in a warning by the fire marshal.
"My deepest desire is to be worked out of a job," Saunders said. "If we had plenty of resources in foster homes, we could use this for something else."
The Tulsa shelter has a main office and four cottages sitting on 20 acres on Pine Street west of Sheridan Road. The cottage for babies and toddlers mirrors Tulsa's recently built Head Start and Educare facilities.
The campus has walking and bike trails linking the buildings. Donors have provided a basketball court, playground equipment, a picnic area, garden and soccer/football fields.
The main building has classrooms with computers, family visitation rooms, offices for the staff, a small theater and a gymnasium.
"We love the gym almost more than anything else," Saunders said. "We have lots of fun in here and children can run off some of their energy. When we had all the snow days last year, we've never been more grateful for it."
Children ages 6 and older have their own bedroom and bathroom. A commons area offers television, video games and a kitchen.
School buses from across Tulsa County line up in the mornings to pick up the children, who have a legal right to continue attending their same school while in state care.
Lowry said the state needs to build up its emergency foster homes to place children immediately after removal while social workers look for kinship homes. In other states, those homes are available anytime for placements of about 24 hours and usually pay a higher reimbursement rate.
"Even if it's only three hours, and that would be good, at least it is in a home with a human being," she said.
"It's appalling how bad it was when we filed the lawsuit. Considering how visible and well-known that problem was, the current DHS administration has allowed the problem to grow back to the level it has."
Some national experts mention having a cutoff of 25 children in a shelter. That is based on government funding, said DHS officials.
The shelters operate with nearly 100 percent funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant.
"Rather than focusing on a cap on the number of children in shelter, the effort should be in the length of time in the shelter, with maybe a goal of no more than 24, 48 or 72 hours," Smith said. "We need to focus on getting kids out to placement foster homes faster."
Saunders said the design of the campus allows flexibility to handle an unexpected influx of children. She said it is the behavior some children exhibit from the trauma that leads to difficulties rather than total population.
"It's more challenging with a high number because you need more staff," she said. "We could have a low number, but have children who are severely disturbed and that can be more challenging that high population numbers."
Of the children entering the shelter, about 90 percent are not current on their immunizations and many have gone years without seeing a doctor, dentist or optometrist. Children receive not only the physical assessments but also a mental health and developmental evaluations.
The nonprofit Tulsa Advocates for the Protection of Children helps pay for the medical assessments, trauma screenings and recreation programs at Laura Dester.
Smith said even as the goals of reducing time and populations are reached, the shelter will still have a role in meeting social needs.
"We may need smaller group homes for children who need to be at higher levels of care, a teen mom home, transitional living for kids aging out of the system or a visitation center in a family-friendly place. There are all kinds of potential to use those cottages."
Original Print Headline: Oklahoma's use of shelters for displaced kids criticized
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
A baby nurses a bottle while lying in a crib at the Laura Dester shelter recently. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Volunteer Mary Barnett sorts donated clothing at the Laura Dester shelter in Tulsa. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World