OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma is making lackluster progress toward its promise to improve its foster-care system, according to a report released Wednesday morning by an independent monitoring panel.
The second report from the monitors of the Pinnacle Plan implementation by the state Department of Human Services gave their first opinion on the state's "good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress."
The Pinnacle Plan is the negotiated settlement between the agency and the nonprofit Children's Rights, which filed a federal class-action lawsuit in 2008 alleging abuses of children in foster care.
An agreement was reached in early 2012, and the five-year plan started being put into place in August that year. It has 15 areas to improve, with goals and target dates, such as shelter use and the number of available foster placements.
The monitors make twice-a-year reports on how the state is meeting its goals.
At any point, the monitors could obtain court orders if they believe the state is not making significant progress.
The latest report expressed concerns about the sluggish recruitment of foster homes and therapeutic foster homes and the use of emergency shelters for children age 6 and older.
The monitors complimented the caseworkers for their dedication.
"Throughout, the (monitors) have been impressed by the commitment of DHS caseworkers and supervisors to strengthen the Oklahoma child welfare system so that it works better for children and families, although the DHS staff bear an enormous burden trying to do so in the face of very high caseloads and a shortage of safe, family-like placements for children," the report states.
Marcia Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, said this report shows Oklahoma has not changed its priorities regarding children.
Because voters abolished the oversight commission in 2012 in favor of governor oversight, Lowry said the state's top elected official should be held accountable.
"There is clearly a leadership problem here, and the state's promise to implement the plan the state itself outlined in the Pinnacle Plan is clearly not being implemented in many respects," Lowry said. "Although the people in charge have changed and the buck now stops with the governor, children are not any better off."
Lowry said the findings of not making good faith efforts in foster-home recruitment, shelter use and caseloads are "troubling findings."
DHS officials say there has been some disagreement on the data collection and interpretation. A nationally recognized Chicago-based company has been hired to help in those discussions.
Lowry said the lack of data is a reflection of continued bad practices, pointing to problems getting data during the court process.
"There hasn't even been corrected data available and that is so critical in many respects, like foster home and therapeutic home recruitment," Lowry said. "They cannot even get the data straight. I am surprised by this, and I do attribute it to a lack of leadership. They could have done a better job, especially with regard to recruiting foster homes, which is so critical to all of this."
While the monitors have not sought court orders to date, Children's Rights did express concerns to them about the state not giving promised raises to workers and foster parents. The monitors noted that the increases were made late and no orders were needed.
"It is disheartening that Oklahoma seems unable to prioritize the needs of its most vulnerable citizens," stated Fred Dorwart in a written release. His law firm served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs.
"Children in state care, who already have suffered horrifying trauma, deserve nothing less than good homes and the full attention of those overseeing their cases. The state's practices continue to expose children to harm and the threat of harm."
The report findings are not a surprise to DHS, though officials disagree with some of its findings.
Director Ed Lake has spoken publicly for the past few weeks about the challenges being faced, from high staff turnover to a need for supplemental funding.
The most significant is a jump in the number of children taken out of abusive and neglectful homes, from 8,500 to 11,300, at a time when these reforms are being made.
Lake said he was pleased monitors recognized the work of the staff and those challenges. But he said improvements have been made in each area even though some fell short of the goal.
"It has been an uphill battle at almost every turn with the unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of children being placed in state custody," Lake stated in a written release. "That fact alone has affected key goals in the Pinnacle Plan. The pace of a few of our initiatives hasn't been what we all wanted it to be, but that certainly hasn't been for lack of effort or support for our work.
"We believe progress is being made, even with the number of children in our care, and the data supports our belief."
DHS overhauled its structure of child welfare, hired about 600 workers, reformed investigative procedures and responses to child-abuse allegations and eliminated shelter use for children 2 and younger, and has nearly rid shelter use for all children younger than 6.
"This is not the same department it was two years ago," Lake said. "We are headed in the right direction, but it will take time to get where we want to be. This is only the second year of a five-year improvement plan, and we still have much work ahead."
The cost of the Pinnacle Plan is estimated to be about $100 million over five years. It received $25 million out of the $30 million request to the Legislature the first year, and $32 million out of the $40 million request in the second.
Lake requested $33 million in supplemental funding to get through the fiscal year but no action has been taken.
Though the funding falls short, Lake said DHS has fared better than other agencies.
"We are extremely grateful to Gov. Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Legislature for their continuing support and investments they have made to enable these improvements," he said. "The state's financial investment has been considerable, and it's clear this critical work to improve our child welfare system is a high priority."
Highlights from the Pinnacle Plan Monitoring Report
Foster home development and support: Found that DHS was not making a good faith effort in recruiting homes and giving enough resources. Monitors were critical of the delay in establishing contracts with private agencies providing foster care support. They found a net gain of 50 homes last year while the goal was 615.
Foster care rate increase: One increase was made last year. The second scheduled increase has not been given because the Legislature did not provide funding in a supplemental appropriation. DHS plans to make up for that in the next year.
Therapeutic foster care: Found that DHS was not making a good faith effort in recruiting these more specialized homes. The explanation provided indicates some disagreement on how to calculate the number of homes available. A revised plan to meet the goals in this area was submitted by DHS to the monitors and is under review.
Caseloads: Is withholding judgment on good-faith effort until October. Monitors said DHS implemented several ways to improve the environment and turnover, including a redistribution of caseloads. Data was submitted by DHS in December for review. Monitors stated they "do not yet find evidence that workloads are improving in a substantial and sustained direction and DHS will need to demonstrate very significant movement over the next several months." An allegation made by Children's Rights in the lawsuit was that DHS routinely assigned workers at least 50 children and some had up to 100 children.
Shelter use: Monitors found DHS is making a good faith effort on eliminating use of emergency shelters for children 2 and younger. However, the monitors say they are "very concerned" about the growing number of children 6 and older in shelters. They are reserving judgment on good faith for the 2 to 5 age group until October.
Caseworker visitation: Is reserving judgment on good faith until October. DHS submitted data in March, and the parties are reviewing the information.
Placement stability: DHS and the monitors are currently reviewing data. Judgment on good faith is being withheld until October.
Permanency placement: DHS and the monitors are reviewing data. Judgment on good faith is being withheld until October.
Source: Report from the independent monitors of the DHS class action settlement
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376