Halloween was a weeklong celebration this year at the Laura Dester Children’s Center in Tulsa.
Staff members dressed up with the kids each day and took as many photographs as pieces of candy were collected on campus. After all, some of the youngsters have bounced around the state’s child welfare system so often and for so long they don’t know where they came from or have pictures of themselves growing up.
The center in January is marking its first year as a treatment center — no longer a shelter — for foster children with complex special needs. The first child successfully treated is expected to be placed this week into a companion arrangement by an Oklahoma City provider. Two others just became eligible for placement.
“You have to remember this is their childhood. This is what they get; we’re it,” said Naj Kutait-Faulkner, a behavioral analyst and behavioral practitioner. “It can’t just be a facility. These are children. At our cottage, when we’re leaving for the evening, every single kid — every single kid — is going to want to come up and have a hug, and they want you to kiss their head.”
Only a year and a half ago the center was shuttered and the last foster kid removed to another placement. An oversight panel three months earlier ordered the center closed, citing an “alarmingly high” number of child maltreatment reports and confirmed cases that mostly stemmed from lack of supervision and unsafe living conditions.
Laura Dester was the final state-operated shelter in Oklahoma. It evolved into a last-resort placement for children with complex issues as the Oklahoma Department of Human Services worked to improve its child welfare system to comply with reforms required by the settlement in a 2008 federal class-action lawsuit alleging abuse and neglect of foster kids.
The facility at 7318 E. Pine St. is still owned by the state but now is operated by Liberty of Oklahoma Corp., which runs the Greer Center in Enid that similarly treats adults with co-occurring disorders.
Foster children with co-occurring intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges — many with underlying mental illness — receive short-term treatment to improve quality of life and allow them to graduate into the least restrictive placement as possible.
There are book and drama clubs at Laura Dester. Girls have makeup or hair nights. The boys tend to engage in more physical activities, such as sports.
Employees say routine, structure and social interaction are as important as anything to a subset of children who only know instability. The kids all want assurances staff members will return the next day and not leave them.
Casey Nelson, a health service psychologist, said they incrementally learn calming skills, patience, delayed gratification and cooperation — tools to help meet their special challenges and allow them to be reintegrated into society.
Without the treatment program, many of the kids likely would still be shuffling from foster homes to shelters to psychiatric hospitals. Some bounce dozens of times, including a 16-year-old boy whom Nelson said suffers with transitions and struggles with new faces.
“He’ll come to my office just to see that I’m there,” Nelson said. “He’ll come knock on the door and just stand there. ‘You just checking on me? Yeah. You just want to see that I’m here? Yeah.’
“It’s at that level of consistency that a lot of these kids need.”
The hope is the program at Laura Dester will help children with the same clinical needs as the adults who are treated at Greer in Enid achieve better quality of life sooner and not have to enter Greer as adults.
In its two decades, about 80% of the adults treated at Greer for co-occurring disorders had been foster children at one point, according to Hugh Sage, executive director of that facility’s operations.
Greer has stabilized 225 of its 259 clients, or 87%. Only four, or 2%, have returned within the first year. Another 11, or 6%, have returned after a year. The average stabilization — or “placement-ready” status — has taken about nine months.
Sage said they’re finding out it doesn’t take much to bring out a significant difference in the children during treatment. The real problem is how long it takes to be able to actually place a stabilized kid.
The girl who is scheduled to be the first to leave Laura Dester stabilized in June after only five months, he said.
“There is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done, and we’re all learning — child welfare is learning as well — about how to make the transition more successful and to shorten the length of time required,” Sage said.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services views the treatment program at Laura Dester as a piece of the puzzle, not the only option or service needed for kids in its care with developmental disabilities.
Deb Shropshire, DHS director of child welfare, said she wants the state to be able to put providers in homes, similar to home health nursing, to help families with special needs children.
Shropshire said the state is moving toward being able to provide a transition service any time a child moves from a group to family setting. She pointed to Laura Dester, which in a few weeks will open one of its unused cottages to train parents and caregivers on behavioral management techniques to try to ensure successful placements.
“These kids aren’t one size fits all,” Shropshire said. “They come to us each one with unique circumstances.”
The first renovated cottage at Laura Dester reopened a year ago, followed by the other two in April. Twenty of the 24 available beds are full at the moment.
A new client is expected this week, and the youngsters will make signs and help throw a party to make the child feel welcome as they do with all arrivals.
They bring whatever bedding, toys or nick knacks with them. Photos will be posted on walls.
But it’s not the same as if they had a home to look forward to.
“Many of our kids have asked to go home with staff,” said Kim Wotring, a behavioral analyst and behavioral practitioner. “ ‘Will you adopt me?’ They don’t have that.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt wants Oklahoma’s state schools chief to be appointed, a move that would give the governor more control over public education.
Under the current system, Oklahoma voters elect a superintendent of public instruction — the state’s top public education official, who leads the state Department of Education and serves on the state Board of Education.
To change the current structure, legislators would have to refer to the ballot a constitutional amendment asking voters to decide whether Oklahoma’s state superintendent should be appointed instead of elected.
Riding high after the Legislature expanded his power last year, Stitt has shifted his focus to re-envisioning the state’s education structure. At least one high-ranking member of Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled Legislature supports changing how the state superintendent is selected.
In an interview with The Oklahoman, Stitt said he’s frustrated by his limited ability to affect education policy. Oklahomans expect the governor to make education reforms, but don’t understand the governor’s hands are tied, he said.
“When the governor’s elected by all four million Oklahomans, the people think that he or she’s supposed to be able to go in and make some different moves on education to get outcomes,” Stitt said. “That’s just common sense. That’s what I thought when I was sitting in Tulsa in the business world. That’s what people in Oklahoma think.”
Of nearly 4 million Oklahomans, 644,579 voted for Stitt to become governor.
Asked directly if he would like Oklahoma’s state schools superintendent to be appointed, Stitt did not mince words.
“Yes, 100%,” he said, noting he has discussed the issue with some state legislators. Stitt did not specify if he would want to be able to appoint the state’s top schools official himself or if he would want that power vested with the state Board of Education, which is almost entirely made up of gubernatorial appointees.
Oklahoma is one of about a dozen states that elects its state superintendent. Most states allow the governor or the state Board of Education to appoint the state superintendent.
Stitt does not want any changes to affect Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s current superintendent. Hofmeister, whose office declined to comment on the governor’s remarks, was elected to her second and final term in 2018.
Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, said allowing Oklahoma’s governor to appoint the state superintendent could drastically shift the balance of power and take power away from the people.
“This would be a major shift for our state,” she said. “I think as we continue to make improvements and get ourselves back on the right footing with the budget as well as with (education) policy, this would remove the voice of the people from that process.”
Oklahoma’s constitution spreads executive branch power among several statewide elected officials instead of solely with the governor. State legislators have tried before to change that structure.
In 2011, Republican legislators advanced a bill to let the governor appoint the state superintendent, treasurer, insurance commissioner and labor commissioner, who are elected. Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who now serves as the Senate pro tem, tried again to consolidate power under Oklahoma’s governor with legislation he introduced in 2013.
Neither measure made it to a statewide vote.
Treat still favors expanding the governor’s appointment power to include executive branch officials who currently are elected, and he has discussed the issue with Stitt, said Treat spokesman Aaron Cooper.
“The current office holders are doing a fine job, but Senator Treat believes this model works well at the federal level and in other states and would work well in Oklahoma too,” Cooper said.
Last year, Oklahoma’s Legislature set a precedent of granting more power to the governor by giving Stitt direct oversight of five additional state agencies. Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall have said they plan to continue that trend this legislative session.
If residents are unhappy with the state of education in Oklahoma, they should consider giving the governor the power to reform the state’s education system, Stitt said.
“I’m just trying to point out the hindrances, the reason that I believe that we’re not performing up to where other states are,” he said.
Oklahoma’s Legislature and governor already have oversight of the state Board of Education, said Provenzano, a former teacher and public school administrator.
In addition to getting to appoint six of the seven board members, the governor has a cabinet secretary devoted to education. The governor gets the final say on any education bills legislators approve, and the Legislature and governor also determine how much money to allocate to the Department of Education.
The state superintendent is not to blame for years of underfunding education, Provenzano said.
“The state of education in Oklahoma, and the work that we’re going to have to do to even get it back to where it once was, is a direct result of severe underfunding by the state Legislature for well over a decade,” she said. “That does not fall at the feet of the state superintendent of education. That falls at the feet of the budgeting entities, which are the House, the Senate and the governor.”
In recent years, other states have taken steps to change how their state superintendent is chosen. In 2018, South Carolina voters refused to give up their power to elect a state superintendent. But in Indiana, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature recently gave Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb the power to appoint the state’s next schools chief in 2021.
Oklahoma voters used to elect more executive branch officeholders and heads of some state agencies, but that has been pared back over the years. In 1975, voters approved a ballot measure to allow the governor to appoint some officials, like secretary of state, who used to be elected.
Moody’s Investor Service downgraded by two notches $85 million in University of Tulsa bonds, a move Moody’s says reflects a “very weak operating performance.”
The university has previously acknowledged cash flow problems and last year initiated a controversial reorganization that has met with notable resistance on campus and off.
The downgrade from Baa1 to Baa3 occurred last month, according to Moody’s. The outlook remains negative.
In a Dec. 19 campuswide email, President Gerard Clancy said the downgrade was not unexpected.
“While we are appropriately concerned about this downgrade, it is important that we all understand it will have minimal impact on our ability to borrow and should not be felt in our day-to-day operations,” he said.
According to Moody’s, all the university’s debt service reserve funds have been maintained at or above required levels, and it has substantial backup funding in place, including a reserve fund replenishment agreement with the J.A. Chapman and Leta M. Chapman trusts, which make up a substantial portion of TU’s endowment.
The problem, according to Moody’s, is that TU has been running unsustainable operating deficits.
“Operating cash flow has been insufficient to cover debt service over the fiscal 2015-2019 period,” the Moody’s report says.
TU says net tuition revenue declined by one-fourth from 2015 to 2019, even as enrollment remained largely the same. The decline was caused by the loss of just about all international students, who generally pay full tuition and housing costs, and greater tuition discounts because of competition for students.
Although not mentioned in the Moody’s report, critics of the administration and trustees also blame what they say is a top-heavy administration. They are also upset about elements of the reorganization that they believe damages TU’s academic reputation and will ultimately worsen its financial difficulties.
Clancy, in his campus email, said the school has made progress on the financial front but that “we must all pull together and find ways to enhance our financial standing through responsible cost reductions.”