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Report finds progress by DHS in reducing abuse of children in state care

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DHS child welfare specialist Katie Cooper brings an infant to the baby's mother for an unsupervised visit Thursday, May, 16, 2013. [Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman archives]
DHS child welfare specialist Katie Cooper brings an infant to the baby's mother for an unsupervised visit Thursday, May, 16, 2013. [Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman archives]

Oklahoma's Department of Human Services has made significant progress in reducing incidents of abuse of children in state care, according to a new report released Friday by out-of-state monitors.

DHS reported a "sharp decline in the incidence of abuse and neglect in institutional settings," the overseers reported, adding that the agency also was highly successful in protecting the safety of children being cared for by parents in trial reunifications.

The overseers have issued 12 progress reports since January 2012 when DHS entered into an agreement to settle a class action lawsuit over the maltreatment of children in state care.

This report was by far the most positive.

The overseers found that DHS has made good-faith efforts to make substantial and sustained progress in 29 of 31 target areas, which include categories like increasing the number of available foster homes, reducing the number of times children are moved around to different foster homes, reducing the placement of children in institutional shelters and reducing caseloads of child welfare workers.

The two areas where DHS came up short related to the recruitment and retention of therapeutic foster homes, which are homes headed by individuals trained to care for children in need of behavioral health treatment.

"Since the outset of this reform, DHS has seen a 77 percent decline in specialized foster homes for children in DHS' custody who need therapeutic care, and without urgent, aggressive action, the situation will worsen," the report warned.

Recruitment of therapeutic foster homes continues to pose problems for DHS, the agency said in a news release.

"Supports are limited in Oklahoma for children with autism, complex medical needs and co-occurring mental health disorders and intellectual disabilities," the news release said. "DHS Child Welfare Services is currently in the initial phase of working with partner agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, to enhance supports for children with these complex needs by creating a continuum of care that involves all three agencies."

Overall, DHS Director Ed Lake said he was pleased by the report's findings.

"We are continually encouraged by the steady progress we see every day and are pleased the co-neutrals (out-of-state overseers) have recognized our efforts," Lake said. "This achievement is a testament to the hard work of our Child Welfare Services staff, providers and partner agencies that provide services to the children in our care."

The overseers also were complimentary of the state's efforts to improve its child welfare system.

"In nearly all areas, DHS is heading in the right direction, owing to strong legislative support and investment in DHS, and implementing of core improvement strategies by DHS leadership and staff in many areas of child welfare practice," they said.

Gov. Kevin Stitt lauded the improvement efforts.

"As governor, family impact is at the forefront of every decision and I believe we must be committed to strengthening the families of Oklahoma," Stitt said. "I applaud the continued efforts of DHS staff and partners who are working every day to improve our state's foster care system as outlined by the Pinnacle Plan. I am pleased with the agency's progress and believe they are very close to fulfilling those commitments to the children and families they serve."

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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