Dester (copy)

The last resident of the Laura Dester Children’s Center walks out of her cottage during the discharge process. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

The closure of Laura Dester Children’s Center as a shelter doesn’t signal a forthcoming dismissal of a 2008 federal class-action lawsuit alleging abuses of foster kids in state care.

It may be years down the road before terms of the settlement are satisfied.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services voluntarily decided to stop operating shelters as part of wide-scale reforms of the state’s child-welfare system. But the settlement agreement struck in 2012 sets out 31 performance metrics; the agency for two consecutive years must demonstrate good-faith efforts in achieving “substantial and sustained progress toward each target outcome.”

On the state’s dime at a cap of $1.4 million a year, a three-person child-welfare expert panel oversees implementation of the so-called Pinnacle Plan. The contract monitors, dubbed “co-neutrals,” analyze DHS and submit commentaries semi-annually. The most recent was published in August and caused the agency to strongly rebut the findings.

There were nine metrics in which the co-neutrals found good-faith efforts weren’t being made. DHS questioned that determination, given six of those metrics in January were deemed to be good-faith efforts and had been for at least a year.

The agency holds the power to compel the co-neutrals to write a final report at any time and essentially let the chips fall where they may with whatever a federal judge decides.

DHS Director Ed Lake cautioned that the judge will “look heavily upon the weight” of the co-neutrals’ findings. So it’s beneficial to continue a partnership that has implemented “sweeping and important changes” throughout the child-welfare system, Lake said.

The contract itself states that the co-neutrals’ decision in any dispute is final.

“I think we’ll see kind of a reset in our efforts and relationship from here on out,” Lake said. “We’re not going to bail on this arrangement. It’s been too productive.”

The two-year clock can’t begin until the co-neutrals find good-faith efforts across the board and would reset each time a no-good-faith effort is assessed. The reports are issued in six-month intervals, meaning the settlement could drag on in the event of periodic adverse findings.

The final co-neutral report was due at the close of 2016. DHS agreed to extend the contract beyond its five-year timeline because the plan’s “overly optimistic” objectives weren’t met.

Laura Dester shelter dispute

The co-neutrals on March 5 unexpectedly ordered DHS to stop accepting referrals at Laura Dester and empty the shelter by June 30, declaring the facility’s children were at an “unreasonable risk of harm.”

As the only remaining state-operated shelter in Oklahoma, Laura Dester had become the landing of last resort for foster children with complex issues, such as mental, behavioral or developmental needs.

The oversight panel obtained a court order after DHS countered by asking for a November or September deadline to open a treatment program at Laura Dester that would have housed some of its occupants.

In their March letter, the co-neutrals noted that DHS substantiated “seven distinct referrals of child maltreatment” involving 10 children at Laura Dester in the preceding 12 months. There also were 46 child maltreatment referrals that were “either ruled out or unsubstantiated” and another 53 referrals “screened out.”

Child neglect from inadequate supervision was the most frequent allegation in records the co-neutrals reviewed for their August commentary.

Some of the notable maltreatment or abuse reports include:

• A 13-year-old boy was punched on March 7 by a staff person who failed to employ de-escalation techniques;

• A 7-year-old who is nonverbal and deaf was found in a bathtub Dec. 1, 2017, with water pouring onto the floor. A direct-care staffer was seen jerking the child from the tub, pulling the child’s ears and slinging the child across floors that caused the child’s hip to hit the edge of a bed;

• A staff person used a headlock — an unapproved hold — on a 12-year-old after the child knocked a container of Gatorade onto a kitchen floor that the employee had just cleaned. The report was made Oct. 4, 2017;

• A 9-year-old nonverbal child was left by shelter staff on July 5, 2017, at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. After returning, the child was observed to have a 2-by-2-inch second-degree burn on his left forearm; the cause could not be determined.

“DHS’ own records present, with an overwhelming and compounding amount of detail, the unacceptably high level of risk and unsafe conditions created by placing together in one facility so many children with significant and complex needs and behaviors without ensuring an appropriate level of staff, training and organizational and programmatic management and oversight,” the co-neutrals wrote in the August commentary.

DHS replied that “significant resources and personnel” were used so the Laura Dester facility could address the children’s needs and behaviors. A primary issue was the lack of available beds in Oklahoma to care for “a population of children who are notoriously difficult to place and maintain,” it said.

The agency said leadership was made aware of issues that were immediately addressed, with no reports or threats of harm going unheeded.

“Without prior discussion and with an arbitrary deadline, the co-neutrals ordered the closure of Laura Dester at an unrealistic pace that increased the risk of harm to the children housed there,” DHS said.

There were 41 children at Laura Dester when the co-neutrals ordered the facility to wind down and close.

Of those, there were 17 kids whose placements were disrupted. Thirteen were placed in March or April, according to data provided by DHS. There were 24 who are successful so far in placements, with 16 of them placed in May or June.

“It just shows you that, had we had more time to develop placements for some of those kids who left earlier — who’ve experienced many more placements — we could have hopefully gotten them into a more stable placement,” said agency spokeswoman Sheree Powell.

Of those 41 children, staff have identified 12 who are potential candidates for the pending treatment center at Laura Dester. Six of those 12 have been disrupted from their initial placement from the shuttered shelter, including two children with 12 and 10 moves, respectively.

Powell said the agency expects the treatment center to become operational Jan. 1. A Dec. 1 deadline isn’t realistic, given some construction delays, she said.

A private contractor will operate the treatment center, which will be the first in Oklahoma to care for foster kids with co-occurring intellectual disabilities and mental illness.

Corey Jones

918-581-8359

corey.jones@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @JonesingToWrite

Corey is a general assignment reporter who specializes in coverage of man-made earthquakes, criminal justice and dabbles in enterprise projects. He excels at annoying the city editor. Phone: 918-581-8359

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