The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has started turning around the problem of maltreatment of foster children, according to the latest progress report from an oversight panel, released Friday.
Last fall, a report from the Pinnacle Plan, which is an improvement plan developed from a class-action lawsuit settlement, showed the agency struggling in some areas. Now, for the first time, DHS has made “good faith efforts” to reduce maltreatment in care.
The report states DHS has made “discernible progress” though “modest” in some areas.
“The advancements made to date are fragile, and not yet fully rooted, particularly with respect to reasonable caseloads and an adequate array of homes for children,” the report states. “Despite the tremendous budget pressures DHS has confronted in recent years, DHS leadership, supported by the governor and the Legislature, has maintained its focus and investments on child welfare reform.
“These budget pressures continue to loom large presently, and threaten the pace and progress of the overall reform effort at a critical time. … Any reversal in support could substantially compromise the still tenuous foundation upon which DHS has sought to build this reform, and undermine years of public investment from the Oklahoma Legislature.”
Overall, the agency was found to have been making “good faith efforts” in 24 of 31 areas. The monitors are reserving judgment in six areas.
The one area in which DHS was found to have made no improvement was in finding permanent homes for older teens, those ages 16 to 18.
“The (monitors) continue to recognize and cite the progress we are making to improve our foster care system,” said DHS Director Ed Lake. “Although we would like to have attained ‘good faith efforts’ across the board, we are still very close. We know what we need to do and have clear plans approved by the (monitors) for meeting those obligations. We continue to work on those plans and are confident we will achieve our goals.”
The Pinnacle Plan was an ambitious five-year plan approved in 2012 to improve the system for abused and neglected children taken into the state’s care. It included cutting down on placements, recruiting more foster families, lowering caseloads, eliminating shelter use, and raising worker salaries and foster family payments.
The agreement is overseen by a three-member monitoring panel.
Because DHS was not near some of the agreed-upon goals, an extension was granted last year. The oversight — with regular progress reports — will continue until the goals are met.
Turning around a system so far behind takes time, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and executive director of A Better Childhood, a national nonprofit.
“Oklahoma lost the first three years of the process because they really weren’t making a lot of progress,” Lowry said. “It’s only the last three years that they have been making an effort to do it, and we are glad for the effort — even in maltreatment in care. But the numbers are still the worst in the country, and that is really very concerning.”
The biggest improvements have been in caseworker visits, which have met the original goals set. DHS has also received high marks in eliminating shelter use for children 2 and younger and finding permanent homes for young children within four years.
But Lowry is concerned about the setbacks she is seeing in the data regarding the number of regular foster homes. The agency has an ongoing problem attracting therapeutic homes, and the state has a lack of group home placements.
“A large number of regular foster homes have been lost. … In the next period that could well be a big problem, as well,” Lowry said.
Most concerning to stakeholders is how the state budget will impact child welfare. DHS administers social programs such as adult protective services, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (commonly referred to as food stamps), disability services, child care licensing and the ADvantage Waiver program.
The ongoing state budget failure has cut into those programs significantly, and social workers argue that those cuts affect families at risk of child abuse and neglect.
Because of the Pinnacle Plan, the child welfare division has been largely spared while budgets of the other departments have been slashed. That changed with the announcement last month of a 14 percent cut for DHS. The child welfare division is expected to lose $7 million to $14 million.
Lowry said the budget loss could bring setbacks in the strides made under the Pinnacle Plan, such as higher caseloads, and further stymie progress in recruiting foster families.
“The budget cuts have been quite draconian, and the agency could get worse,” she said. “A lot depends on what the Legislature will do in terms of funding.”