Families Discuss How Child Welfare System Has Failed Them

Wednesday, October 15th 2014, 6:46 pm
By: News 9

A new report released Wednesday from three experts slams Oklahoma's Department of Human Services.

DHS promised to make changes after settling a class action lawsuit two years ago involving the welfare of children in state custody.

The new report stated DHS is getting worse in some areas.

The report came out the same day several Oklahoma families gathered at the state capitol to explain how the state's child welfare system has failed their families.

“I'm very frustrated, I'm hurt and I have no faith in the Department of Human Services,” Victoria Ransom said.

Ransom said she was not allowed to adopt her three nephews, and, instead, a foster family adopted the boys.

She said the reason was lack of income, although she was never told there was an income requirement and therefore did not have a chance to better her financial situation to meet an income requirement.

3/30/2012 Related Story: Oklahoma Leaders Announce Plans To Improve DHS, Child Welfare

“The Department of Human Services is not interested in keeping children connected to their family whatsoever,” Ransom added.

When children are removed from their homes, DHS said the majority are placed with relatives or people the kids know.

However, Leslie Lambeth said she was not allowed to adopt her grandson after she said she passed all the requirements and background checks.

“It hurts, it really does,” said Lambeth. “I could understand if I was a person who wasn't qualified, but I'm overqualified,” the former prison guard and corrections officer said.

“Very frustrated being allowed to do things for the state of Oklahoma and not for my own family, it really took a toll on me,” Lambeth added.

DHS was further criticized in a new report by the three experts appointed to monitor DHS's improvement.

The state has devoted more than $93 million so far to the DHS reform plan, called the Pinnacle Plan, but the agency's performance was poor in several areas like:
  • very high caseloads
  • inadequate supply of foster homes
  • backlog of abuse/neglect investigations
  • long delays responding to abuse/neglect calls
  • overuse of shelters for kids over six
The DHS Director, Ed Lake, said the agency still has a long way to go before it is completely satisfied with its services, but points to progresses like:
  • decreasing shelter placements for kids under six
  • more caseworker visits with children
  • better trained abuse/neglect investigators
DHS also said it has seen a 40 percent increase in the past two years in the number of children coming into the foster care system.

Abuse and neglect calls have also increased, all of which stresses resources, but the agency said it is confident it can keep making the necessary improvements to ensure the safety of Oklahoma children.

The Department of Human Services released the following statement:

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services received the third commentary from the “co-neutrals” overseeing the Department's implementation of the Pinnacle Plan, a five-year improvement plan for its foster care system.

DHS settled a class-action lawsuit in January 2012 by agreeing to make good faith efforts to achieve targeted improvements in a range of areas to improve services for children in its care. Under the settlement agreement, the co-neutrals are required to provide commentary twice a year on DHS's overall progress and good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress toward the outcomes identified in the settlement agreement.

“We are absolutely committed to implementing the Pinnacle Plan in order to improve the way we care for the children in our custody,” said DHS Director Ed Lake. “We have a myriad of efforts underway which are already showing positive results. (See Child Welfare Services Efforts to Improve Services to Children and Families).

“While we still have a long way to go before we can be completely satisfied with our services, we are making progress to make this system better for kids and families,” said Lake. “We have increased in-home services to families in lieu of foster care. When children must be removed from their homes, the majority are placed with relatives or people the children know. Younger children are being kept out of shelters. Our workers are making required visits to the children in their caseloads and kids are moving less frequently between placements.

“As we continue to make improvements, it is important to remember that we have seen a 40 percent increase in the past two years in the number of children coming into the foster care system,” Lake said. “Abuse and neglect calls to the agency have increased as well as the numbers of children involved in those calls. This demand has stretched DHS' available resources and slowed the implementation of our plans for improvement. Despite these challenges, we are confident we can continue to move forward and make the kind of improvements Oklahoma needs.”

DHS is making smart investments of taxpayer resources and laying a strong foundation that will be sustainable over time. Working with national child welfare experts, DHS is building services and partnerships with private contractors, community partners, and other state agencies--partnerships that did not exist two years ago. (See list of Child Welfare Partnerships – Pre and Post Pinnacle Plan)

Accomplishments and Progress:

Shelter placements for children under the age of six have nearly been eliminated. The number of youth ages 13-18 years old who have been kept out of shelters is increasing (See chart – Youth Age 13-18 Years with a Shelter Stay during SFY) More than 50 percent of all the children being served are in kinship homes with family members and people with whom children already have established relationships. (See charts – Percent of Children by Placement Type on Last Day of SFY and Number of Children by Placement Type of Last Day of SFY) More children and families each year are receiving in-home services in lieu of foster care placements (See chart - Number of Children in Family Centered Services cases) Children are being visited by their caseworkers as required and most are being seen by their primary workers. (See charts – Frequency of Worker/Primary Worker Contacts) Children are moving less. The placement stability of children in foster care is improving. (See three charts – Placement Stability Measures) Significantly improved Office of Client Advocacy (OCA) investigative practices. OCA has made a number of changes to its investigations of abuse and neglect allegations of children in residential settings such as group homes, shelters and treatment facilities (does not include foster homes). OCA now follows the same time frames and criteria as other child protective services investigations, and these are now tracked and reported in the same system as other abuse and neglect investigations. DHS provided Child Welfare Specialists two pay raises and foster parents with two rate increases in 2014--three increases respectively since state fiscal year 2013. DHS has also significantly streamlined the hiring process for child welfare specialists. (For current pay and rates, see Rate Increases - Pinnacle Plan page, okdhs.org website) Although the number of foster homes recruited by the private partners has not met Pinnacle Plan targets, the quality of the homes is high. Foster families are being better supported and the children are experiencing positive placement changes. Challenges:

Adequate supply of foster homes – Contracts with private foster care partners have been in effect since August 2013; however, agencies were not able to begin recruitment efforts in earnest until November 2013. (DHS did not send referrals to foster care partner agencies until they were ready to begin work, contrary to the commentary.) The agencies have reported facing similar challenges DHS faces in recruiting and hiring high-quality staff. Foster care partners report a collaborative working relationship with DHS as well as frequent and high quality communication. DHS has worked continuously with agencies to quickly remove any barriers and solve problems as they are encountered.

High caseloads for staff – Increased demands on the child welfare system have made it more difficult to reduce workloads. However, several significant initiatives are underway to reduce entries to foster care and help children already in care to reunify with their families or reach adoption faster. Since 2012, 772 additional child welfare specialists and assistants have been added to the workforce. In addition, supervisor to worker ratios have been reduced to 1:5, experienced specialists have been trained to mentor new employees, and smaller caseloads are being assigned to new workers. The hiring process has been dramatically streamlined and overtime compensation widely approved to support staff in handling cases. Child Welfare Services has also recently engaged the Children's Mental Health Services Research Center of the University of Tennessee to implement research-based methods to improve service quality, child outcomes, and organizational support of its front line employees. (See line graph showing the increase in numbers of CWS staff).

Shelter use for children older than six years old – DHS agrees that all children need to be in family-like settings. DHS has several initiatives to address this including the expansion of intensive in-home prevention and reunification services to keep more children home safely with their families in lieu of foster care placements; continuing to work with foster care partner agencies on the recruitment of more foster homes.

Backlog of child abuse investigations – DHS, along with the assistance of Eckerd, reduced the backlog of Child Protective Services assessments and investigations from almost 3,600 a year ago to 1,200 today and the work continues.