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A better review for DHS

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DHS Director Ed Lake
DHS Director Ed Lake

During the six years that outside experts have monitored the state’s efforts to improve Oklahoma’s child welfare system, there have been more than a few mixed and even poor reviews. The latest is a welcome change.

A report filed last week is the most positive of the dozen that the monitors have issued since the Department of Human Services entered into an agreement to settle a class-action lawsuit over poor treatment of kids in state care.

Just last August, the monitors, called “co-neutrals,” said DHS had made “sustained progress” in some areas but wasn’t even making “good faith efforts” in several other areas. They said continued high incidence of maltreatment “raises serious concerns about the rigor, focus and urgency of the state’s efforts to ensure the safety and well-being” of children.

That report drew a strong rebuttal from DHS Director Ed Lake, who said it contained “a number of misleading comments” and “inconsistencies with prior reports.”

The news is much better this time around.

The co-neutrals said DHS has made good-faith efforts to make substantial and sustained progress in 29 of the 31 target areas. Those areas include such things as reducing caseloads for child welfare workers, reducing how often children are moved to different foster homes and increasing the number of available foster homes.

DHS, the co-neutrals said, reported a “sharp decline in the incidence of abuse and neglect in institutional settings” and did quite well protecting children being cared for by parents in trial reunifications.

“In nearly all areas, DHS is heading in the right direction,” the monitors said. They said that was due 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.”

The co-neutrals did note that Oklahoma is struggling to recruit and keep therapeutic foster homes, which cater to children with behavioral health needs. The number of such homes has fallen 77% since reforms began, the monitors said, and will fall further without “urgent, aggressive action.”

All the reforms are part of what was dubbed the “Pinnacle Plan” after the court settlement in 2012. The Legislature has directed tens of millions of dollars to the Pinnacle Plan every year since then.

A bump in the overall appropriation to DHS last year allowed Lake to increase salaries for child welfare specialists to fulfill obligations of the Pinnacle Plan. Those were badly needed — high demand leaves those specialists fighting upstream constantly. Lake has touted the work of his agency throughout this process, and said the most recent report is a nod to the child welfare division, providers and partner agencies.

“(W)e are pleased the co-neutrals have recognized our efforts,” he said.

The change in tenor on both sides is encouraging. Even more encouraging would be a significant reduction in the demand for DHS’s services in this area.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›

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