Staff members lined the hallway in Laura Dester Children’s Center as Hallie offered hugs to her moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas.
Wearing a blue, sleeveless T-shirt with glittering letters that spelled out “Love me,” the 11-year-old was met with wide smiles and hints of tears in some eyes. Waterworks were in others.
Hallie’s belongings were wheeled behind her in a large laundry tote as she carried a red purse containing her movie collection. On Wednesday, she was the last foster kid to exit the 48,200-square-foot Laura Dester as the state wrapped up its final chapter of operating youth shelters.
She had been at Laura Dester for 200-plus days and in the state’s care for more than seven years after being removed from her home because of physical abuse from her parents and lack of supervision. She has intellectual and learning disabilities, along with diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder.
“Bye, I’ll miss you,” Hallie told assistant shelter director Bill Waller as the two embraced.
Backed by a federal court order, an oversight panel has silenced Laura Dester’s four cottages that once echoed with laughter and footfalls of special needs kids without a home. The monitors in April cited an “alarmingly high” number of child maltreatment reports and confirmed cases — primarily from lack of supervision and unsafe living conditions.
The Department of Human Services unsuccessfully pleaded for 60 additional days past Saturday’s deadline to orchestrate better transitions to alternative placements for Laura Dester’s kids. Those two months also would have bridged the time gap to the startup of a pending treatment facility for children with co-occurring disorders.
Plaintiffs attorneys in the federal class-action lawsuit over abuse allegations of state foster care kids acknowledged some positive progress. But they contend that after several years DHS failed to meet “a significant number of crucial goals” in the case’s settlement terms.
DHS officials point to gaps in Oklahoma’s provider network and its strained capacity that conspired to create the situation at Laura Dester and now an uncertain immediate future.
Put simply, the shelter evolved into a landing spot for kids with complex issues — particularly behavioral, developmental and mental health needs.
Whitney Hollingsworth, a DHS program field representative, emphasized the importance of the Laura Dester center serving as an emergency placement option of last resort.
Privately run facilities can turn children away, she noted, but DHS trained staff at the shelter were available 24/7 to ensure a certain level of care.
“We’ve always had Laura Dester as a backup ... It creates anxiety in our field staff (without it),” Hollingsworth said.
With no safety net, DHS officials are concerned with unknowns on two fronts:
• What will happen until Laura Dester is reinvented as a privately operated treatment center for children with co-occurring mental-health disorders and intellectual disabilities?
• When will DHS be able to establish a short-term evaluation center in which to stabilize a child and assess best placement options?
‘No one even misses her’
In many respects, Hallie is like any other 11-year-old girl.
She’s proud of a picture she drew of herself with Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” on a chalkboard in her bedroom. She has a goldfish named “Nemo” that she enjoys feeding each day.
Yet Hallie is among Oklahoma’s most vulnerable children.
As Hollingsworth noted on a recent teleconference with other social workers trying to find an alternative placement, Hallie doesn’t do well with time frames or expectations. Patience is a struggle for her, as well as achieving a good night’s sleep.
Afterward, Hollingsworth told the Tulsa World that children with such high-level needs and significant behavioral issues generally aren’t as young as Hallie. The Tulsa World changed the names of children for this story to protect their identities.
“It’s sad; no one even misses her except her child welfare staff,” Hollingsworth said.
That was evident during her emotional goodbyes at Laura Dester.
Waller has worked at the Laura Dester site at 7318 E. Pine St. for 18 years. He described Hallie as energetic, constantly sporting a smile with a hug handy for staff at the shelter.
“She would pat my belly and ask if I had a baby inside,” Waller said with a chuckle.
After her departure Wednesday, Waller remarked on a common thread among staff: a mix of emotions.
There’s joy for youngsters leaving the shelter to family- or home-like settings — which is the agency’s goal. Unhappiness and unease at being forced to hurriedly usher them out to alternative placements on deadline rather than ensuring the absolute best fit available.
“I just pray that DHS is able to get the appropriate resources for each children’s individual needs,” Waller said. “That’s the problem. There’s just so many different needs for different kids that you got to keep them separated and somewhere appropriate.”
DHS officials had hoped to keep Hallie at Laura Dester for a few more months. It would have been enough time to hastily repurpose the first cottage at the shelter for a privately operated treatment center for kids who have both mental health disorders and learning disabilities.
There will be 24 beds with a maximum stay of 24 months to successfully step a child down to a family- or home-like setting. The center will be the first of its kind in Oklahoma, filling a vital gap in care and helping avoid unintentional scenarios in which a kid bounces around as his or her placements repeatedly disrupt.
Hallie meets the qualifications and would have been considered for the treatment program on Day 1. Instead, she’s off to an enhanced group home in Stillwater geared toward kids with intellectual disabilities and behavioral health issues.
Hollingsworth, who has been with DHS for 11 years, said the oversight panel caused “some unnecessary transitions” from those already at Laura Dester. Similarly, she said, others who would have entered the shelter if not for the monitors’ directive were parsed out to other locations that may not have been the best fits.
“There’s about 25 kids whose needs probably are higher than what the youth service agencies were used to accepting and caring for,” Hollingsworth said. “And we really had to think differently about how we make those placements.”
DHS now intends to not rush the treatment program’s launch and anticipates it opening before the year ends.
Cody Inman, in charge of coordinating Laura Dester’s closure, characterized some of the kids turned away from Laura Dester as “holding on” in their temporary placements.
“As we move forward we still have a lot of concerns about how’s this going to work after Laura Dester closes,” Inman said. “These children are still in temporary placements. ... Many of the kids that were here at Laura Dester will come back to Laura Dester as a treatment facility.”
Inman expressed gratefulness that all of Laura Dester’s children are stable, though some remain in shelter settings not operated by the state. He said Oklahoma is in need of more specialized foster care homes and agency companion homes for those kids to step down into as preferable options when possible.
Additionally, DHS has identified a need for a triage center that can stabilize a foster child and evaluate the best course of action and placement in a 30- or 60-day window.
“We do want to go down the route of looking at an evaluation center, an assessment team to help look at these kids in the future,” Inman said. “I think that’s something that will be coming in the months ahead once we can get our ducks in a row after we get this situation taken care of.”
‘Stressful for everybody’
In the Laura Dester gymnasium five days before she would leave, Hallie bounced a blue rubber dodge ball back and forth with direct care staffer Amanda Bindrum.
Nearby, Krista sat on a yoga mat next to another direct care worker playing a Dr. Seuss card match game. Pop music played on a set of speakers connected to a smartphone.
Hallie and Krista were the last two children at Laura Dester.
There were 42 kids in March when the oversight panel wrote its letter to DHS. Nine remained by the time the court order was issued three months later on June 5.
Krista, an 8-year-old girl who suffers from depression after being sexually abused, was Hallie’s last companion. She had “shut down” and gone through “meltdowns” as children departed and new ones didn’t come in, per usual.
Krista had been at Laura Dester for more than 120 days and most recently in the state’s care since 2016. She was one of the remaining kids who staff described as being distinctly aware the shelter was closing and were more severely depressed or not acting themselves.
The children didn’t feel wanted.
DHS made the decision not to transfer Hallie and Krista until the same day, so neither would be left alone beyond that day.
“It’s been stressful for everybody,” Bindrum said on a break from playing with Hallie. “We don’t know where any jobs are and the kids don’t know where their placements are.”
Of the 77 employees who were at Laura Dester, 30 were qualified for positions in child welfare services and were given the opportunity to transfer into vacant positions, according to information provided by DHS.
Twenty-two probationary staff members resigned before Saturday, and the remaining 25 employees will separate with a voluntary buy-out offer or layoffs that would soon follow.
Sheree Powell, spokesperson for the agency, said direct care staffers were primarily the ones who weren’t qualified for other options with DHS. Powell said they were given contacts for other provider agencies in the Tulsa area in need of direct care staff for people with intellectual disabilities.
Liberty Health Care, the private provider that will operate the treatment program at Laura Dester, is beginning to accept applications for on-campus jobs.
“We appreciate all of the dedicated staff at Laura Dester who stayed until every last child was placed,” Powell said. “The staff put the needs of the children before their own, and Director (Ed) Lake wanted to ensure the staff were treated fairly and given every opportunity to stay with DHS if they chose.”
Inman, who will return to his role as special assistant to DHS Director Ed Lake after Laura Dester’s closure, said the past two months have been “rocky” and “very stressful” for staff.
But the treatment center will help DHS better understand the kids in the system to deliver the best care and opportunities, he said.
“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done here. It’s not going to stop,” Inman said. “We’re going to continue to reform the system and build out capacity to meet children’s needs.
“We do really want the support of the community to be able to continue this really good work and to know that our needs haven’t changed. We still have a need for immediate placements and specialized foster care placements to be able to serve for these kids.”