Foster children with special needs continue to be deprived of therapeutic care in a state welfare system that is hemorrhaging suitable homes, according to an oversight panel report released Monday afternoon.
The report notes that in “most other areas” the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is on the correct path, with credit to legislative support, investment and implementation of core improvement strategies. But the long-term drop in the number and quality of therapeutic foster care placements for children with behavioral challenges or intellectual disabilities was criticized, citing an 82% decline in such homes since 2013.
The panel was particularly troubled by a one-year period in which about 50 children were bounced among short-term placements without the typical wraparound services. And five children were removed from stable placements and put elsewhere simply to allow for their therapeutic homes to become higher-level therapeutic settings, disrupting the children’s comfort and stability.
“There is no adequate rationale for a practice that aided placement instability for children in need of therapeutic care,” the panel wrote. “However, again, the lack of (therapeutic foster care) homes in Oklahoma is a significant cause of children in DHS custody experiencing placement instability and/or also being placed in settings not prepared to meet their individual needs.”
The panel, composed of three child welfare experts called “co-neutrals,” evaluated the six-month period ending June 30. The panel of co-neutrals was put in place by the Pinnacle Plan, the name given to the settlement of a 2008 federal class-action lawsuit alleging child abuse and neglect against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
The evaluation period concluded less than a month into the tenure of new DHS Director Justin Brown. In June, Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed him to replace Ed Lake, who was director for seven years.
Brown’s administrative team learned of the temporary placements and reported them to the co-neutrals in mid-July, immediately terminating that practice.
In a prepared statement, Brown drew attention to positive achievements brought about by Pinnacle Plan reforms.
There were 7,908 children and youths in state custody in June, the second lowest number since reforms began in fiscal year 2013. Brown said that illustrates the agency’s aim of supporting families to keep children in their own homes.
Brown said that when children were placed in state care, 93% were in family-like settings and the majority were placed with people they knew.
“Families kept whole through improved practice models within the state’s child welfare system, collaborative partnerships between state agencies to better serve our shared customers, and communities taking care of their neighbors are the foundations of OKDHS’ True North,” Brown said. “We recognize that there is still progress to be made, and we are hard at work modernizing our business practices and implementing self-correcting controls where necessary in order to achieve the goals laid out in the Pinnacle Plan, as well as our own True North goals,” or priorities for each program division.Featured video