Poor Marks Expected In Oklahoma DHS Report Card

Thursday, April 17th 2014, 10:37 pm
By: News 9

Oklahoma's Department of Human Services is about to get a report card that could have serious consequences, and the way it's looking, the grades won't be good.

Federal court oversight hangs in the balance, not to mention the well-being of thousands of children whose lives depend on the state's foster care system.

The state settled a class action lawsuit against DHS in 2012 with a unique agreement called the Pinnacle Plan. The agreement gave DHS five years to make specific improvements to the foster care system, or face a potentially harsher legal remedy.

What's about to be released is the first annual assessment of DHS's progress in implementing the agreed upon changes. With regard to certain improvements, it's already clear DHS is behind.

"There is an urgent need for foster parents," said Gov. Mary Fallin, in a public service announcement encouraging Oklahomans to step up and erase a shortage of foster homes.

"I think our goal was around 1,200 new homes," said DHS Director Ed Lake.

Lake wasn't working for DHS when the Pinnacle Plan was drawn up, but it's his job now to see that it's implemented.

"As I've said a million times," Lake explained, "we can't 'P-R' our way out of this. We have to perform."

DHS's performance requirements are clearly spelled out in seven, measurable, 'Pinnacle Points' -- things like hiring more caseworkers and improving their pay; eliminating the use of shelters, reducing a child's number of placements, and recruiting more foster homes.

"We may fall a little bit short of the goal we had for the number of homes we were gonna recruit this year," Lake said in a recent interview, "but it looks like we're gonna get pretty close."

The actual goal for new foster homes this fiscal year is 1,197. Halfway through the year, DHS had recruited 346.

Paying close attention to all of the metrics, and serving, essentially, as an objective review panel, are three nationally known child welfare experts, known as the Co-Neutrals. If DHS isn't meeting the goals, the Co-Neutrals have to decide if the agency is at least making a good faith effort to achieve them.

In an interim commentary released last fall, the Co-Neutrals praised DHS for progress being made in restructuring its child welfare division, but voiced concern with a lack of progress in several areas -- reducing caseloads, reducing shelter use, and recruiting new foster homes.

"It's been difficult," Lake acknowledged. "It feels like we're running uphill all the time."

DHS officials say they would be closer on many of the goals, if not for some unexpected obstacles. They say there were approximately 8,500 kids in the foster care system when the Pinnacle Plan was developed in 2012. The number now tops 11,300. What's more, they point out the Legislature hasn't given them all the funding they requested to implement the reforms.

In the last two budgets, state lawmakers have appropriated $57 million for the Pinnacle Plan. DHS requested $70 million. Rep. Jason Nelson, (R) Oklahoma City, says $57 million might have been enough, if not for the foster population exploding.

"The reality is, the number of kids coming into custody has just more than outstripped the resources that we put into the department," said Nelson.

But attorneys for the plaintiffs say none of that matters to children who are in the foster care system.

"The bottomline is that the system has to improve," said Fred Dorwart, "and there is really no excuse for it not improving."

Dorwart says they're very disappointed with DHS's efforts and believe this first report will be an important wake-up call.

"We don't think that there's been substantial improvement," Dorwart commented, "and we anticipate that the Co-Neutrals may share that judgment."

"I'm under no illusions it's going to be a positive report," said DHS Director Lake.

Neither is Nelson, but he says, fortunately, this is just the first report.

"If this were the last one, I would be mortified," said Nelson.

Still, Lake insists -- and Nelson agrees -- DHS is making a good faith effort.

"We're not making progress as rapidly as I would like, or as anybody would like," Lake admitted, "but we are making progress."

The Co-Neutrals' first assessment of good faith effort is expected at the end of the month.  

In the meantime, here is a link to DHS's Pinnacle Plan page, where you can get more detail on the goals and what's been accomplished so far.