For more information about the foster-care improvement plan, called the Pinnacle Plan, go to the website of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services at www.okdhs.org


Oklahoma isn’t facing anything new in its transformation of the foster-care and child welfare systems, according to two out-of-state administrators who led similar reforms.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services hosted a discussion Thursday in Tulsa featuring Anne Marie Ambrose, former Philadelphia child welfare director, and Christine Norbut, former New Jersey child welfare deputy director.

Both describe systems in crisis with high-profile child deaths, demoralized staffs, low foster-home availability, overuse of emergency shelters, and pushback from communities, providers, lawmakers and judicial systems.

Their stories mirror the current struggles facing DHS and Oklahoma advocates implementing the Pinnacle Plan, which is the 2012 negotiated settlement agreement stemming from a federal class-action lawsuit. It is a five-year improvement plan overseen by three independent monitors.

Part of that is the elimination of shelter use, including the Laura Dester Shelter in Tulsa.

Norbut said New Jersey had about 13,500 children in foster care in 2003 and maybe half the foster homes needed. Children were hopping among shelters and homes every month due to overcrowding.

“It was just about a bed and not what was good for kids and families and what kids needed to thrive,” Norbut said.

Efforts were made to cut down on children coming into care by providing parents services in their homes, contracting with a provider for 24-hour emergency foster placements and putting significant resources into foster-care recruitment. Changes included completing background checks on kinship homes within an hour and easing some home licensing restrictions like ceiling heights.

Also, behavioral and mental health providers were brought in to help children who acted out while in foster homes. Through the reforms, communication was held often in town-hall type meetings and one-on-one with stakeholders.

Between 2005 and 2010, New Jersey decreased children in custody to about 7,500 children and increased foster home beds to 15,000. This has given social workers more options for the best foster-home fit.

“It continues today to be an ongoing effort,” Norbut said. “Even though we’ve been successful at reducing kids in inappropriate placements and getting kids under 13 not placed in shelters, it is still challenging.”

DHS Director Ed Lake announced in February that the emergency shelters would close by the end of the year. There is no firm timeline or plans for what would replace the shelters.

Oklahoma has about 11,000 children in foster care and 86 average daily census at the Tulsa and Oklahoma City shelters.

“If you value the idea that kids deserve to be in safe and nurturing families, shelters are not that value,” Lake said.

Former Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Jari Askins took over as head of the Pinnacle Plan implementation effort this week. She attended the Tulsa event as an observer.

The speakers said the judicial system had to be included because judges were not trained on the social-work model for child welfare.

“We were constantly working with the courts to explain many, many times what our practice model is and what we are trying to do,” Norbut said. “Eventually, it became easier for judges because they understood what we were trying to accomplish. … As we worked through these things, there continued to be a struggle because it’s not easy.”

A political aspect would crop up as providers contacted elected leaders with complaints about changes in contracts.

“It wasn’t about the providers not providing good services or not doing what we asked for, but what changed was what was being asked,” Norbut said. “That was really challenging for some of them. But, we could go back to our vision of our value for kids growing up in a family. It was about providing what kids need.”

During questions from the audience, a Tulsa police officer called the shelter “a lifeline” for when law enforcement takes a young child into custody in the middle of the night. He used the example of a 6- or 7-year-old.

“We would never place a 6-year-old in a shelter,” Ambrose said. “It was unconscionable for me to have a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old spend the night at my office.”

Philadelphia and New Jersey have providers on call overnight for emergency foster-home placements. Police take children to the provider or call for a social worker to take the child.

A former foster child in Oklahoma spoke about her experience. Joanna Anderson, 22, was in 23 foster homes, five shelters and two inpatient hospitals within two years.

Anderson said she was beaten up at the shelter and often pushed her foster families to the point of wanting to get rid of her. She said foster kids need people to build trust with them and listen to what they say.

She said staying in the same school is important for consistency and most older youth need independent living skills such as money management.

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

ginnie.graham@tulsaworld.com