The inevitable is coming: The Laura Dester Shelter will close, but it’s a painful winding-down.
Since the announcement a year ago from DHS with specific dates to end shelter use, Tulsa leaders have been meeting with DHS officials to resolve lingering concerns about what happens to children in emergency removals.
“There have been many substantive and productive meetings to date and we certainly have hit the reset button as far as discussions are concerned. … There are still challenges to overcome, but we can definitely see a path now for improvement in situations where children removed are emergently from dangerous situations.” said Kristine Bridges, Executive Director of the Tulsa County Child Protection Coalition.
Tyler Talley, eCapitol
Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Ed Lake described his agency’s efforts Wednesday in meeting requirements set forth by the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan to the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Human Services.
The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan is the result of a class action, civil rights lawsuit filed against the agency’s foster care system that included agreements to make required improvements in targeted areas of the state’s Child Welfare system. The plan is intended to guide the agency over the coming years as it works towards making improvements in the way it care for children within the foster care system.
Lake said that efforts DHS has made in meeting the goals of the plan have led to a reduction to the amount of children in the foster care system. This however has not led to an effect on the agency’s savings. DHS has received a total of $108.8 million for the Pinnacle Plan, but has had to reallocate $45.7 million of its own budget in order to meet the plan’s requirements by increasing its workforce to meet the number of children in foster care. These funds cover staffing and services.
When asked by Chair Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, how much staff had been added since the plan’s implementation, Lake said about 900 positions and still hiring.
“We’re at 60 percent of the workload standards, but that’s one of those statistics that’s a little deceiving,” Lake said. He explained that in some areas DHS has already hit the standard.
“It kind of depends on turnovers, size and other issues like that,” he added.
DHS requested an $11.3 million increase to its FY2017 appropriation in order to fund the Pinnacle Plan’s fifth and final year.
“This last amount is primarily, almost exclusively to complete the salary increase work for the child welfare specialists,” Lake said. “At the very beginning, those salaries were pegged at a certain level based on regional and market data…with this appropriation we would meet that mark.”
The requested funds would also go toward the final scheduled rate increase for foster and adoptive families. Lake explained that “well over 90 percent” of the $108.8 million in Pinnacle Plan funding went to these required salary and rate increases.
Lake said he believed staffing to be the most important aspect in ensuring the plan’s success.
“It’s the lynch pin that allows us to continue to do other things that make a difference,” Lake said. “Every time we’ve been able to ratchet up the staffing and focus on these issues, we’ve started to make significant progress.”
He added, “I think from a legislative budget point of view, nobody can say that Oklahoma didn’t live up to its commitments to try to fund the Pinnacle Plan.”
For FY2016, Lake said the agency had made significant reductions to accommodate the three percent revenue failure, including a department-wide hiring freeze with the exception of Child Welfare Specialists.
He continued, “We have reduced contracts paying on their projected spending levels. We have done the same with our program budgets. We did further reduced contacts by three percent. We’ve eliminated or reduced a number of emergency accounts that we have.”
As the agency heads into the upcoming fiscal year and potentially future cuts to its budget, Lake said their budget planning strategy included: continuing to evaluate its expenditures, programs and service priorities; preparing for impacts to its various client services and examining the impacts of reducing potential positions within the agency.
“We can’t fail at child welfare,” Lake said. “If we fail are child welfare, it’s a statement about DHS….we’re going to do all we can to push through, but there will be a price to be paid.”
Lake also outlined some of the agency’s other programs, such as its disability and aging services, face due to a lack sufficient funding due to its requirements to fund the Pinnacle Plan.
“The well is running dry,” Lake said. “That’s just the way it is. I hate it. I don’t like this ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.'”
Other human services agencies that presented before the subcommittee Wednesday offered their respective appropriation requests as well as the efforts being made to cut costs.
Another agency asking for a change in its appropriations was the Department of Rehabilitation Services. The requested $257,000 funding increase would exclusively be for costs related to both the Oklahoma School for the Blind and the Oklahoma School for the Deaf.
The Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) requested a flat budget for FY2017. The OJA Board of Directors approved a budget reduction for its FY2016 appropriations in January. Chief of Programs Janelle Bretten, who additionally services as the agency’s interim executive director, and Steven Buck, the incoming OJA executive director, provided committee members examples of the work the agency does throughout the state and its intended goals for the upcoming year.
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth offered a 3.0 percent reduced appropriation of $59.186.19.
Concluding the human services subcommittee meeting was the Office of Disability Concerns, who requested a FY2017 flat budget.
The closure of the Laura Dester Shelter has caused some foster children to be removed from their homes to wait for hours in office buildings and cars at odd times while placements can be found, say Tulsa police and prosecutors.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services agreed to shutter the state’s two emergency shelters for abused and neglected children as part of the Pinnacle Plan, which is the improvement plan from a negotiated settlement agreement to a federal lawsuit approved in 2011. It began implementation the following year in many areas such as caseloads, worker pay, shelter use and number of child transitions.
Oklahoma City’s shelter officially closed in November.
“We support the Pinnacle Plan and the shelter’s closing. Child welfare research shows that that children and youths recover better when placed in individual homes rather than institutions. For children with challenging behaviors, longer-term group homes are a better option.
But Dester should be closed when it’s safe to do so, not on the basis of an artificial schedule. The shelter’s resident count has dropped from 71 in August. The state is on the right path, but these things take time.”
In discussions surrounding the closing of the Laura Dester Children’s Center and other conversations about child welfare in Oklahoma, the term “Pinnacle Plan” is heard many times.
To review, a lawsuit was filed against the state in 2008 over the deficiencies in the foster care system. The result was something called the Pinnacle Plan.
Finalized in 2012, The Pinnacle Plan outlined specific goals Oklahoma DHS needed to meet to improve the lives of the children in state care.
To educate yourself regarding what the Pinnacle Plan includes, read it in its entirety here: The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan.
“If you think your home is not big enough, it is. If you think you work too much, you don’t. If you think you’ll get too attached, you will. There is no reason that regular people can’t foster. You do not have to be a perfect parent. You just have to be a good enough parent, ” said Nellie Kelly, who has fostered 15 children in 15 years.
Photo: Tulsa resident Nellie Kelly has fostered 15 children since 2000, four of whom she has adopted. Pictured above, left to right clockwise, are Sunshine, 6; Harley, 19; Judah, 12; Kelly; and Rosa, 11 months.
The DHS goal is to recruit 1,000 foster families by July 2016.
Katelynn Burns, DHS communications manager, said every effort possible is being made to raise people’s awareness about the need for foster homes.
Gov. Mary Fallin added the voice of the governor’s office to the urgent call to state residents to step up and help if possible.
“We are trying to bring in the business and faith communities to work together to solve the problem,” she said.
Currently there are 11,000 children in state custody and there is a continuous need for homes as the Laura Dester Home in Tulsa and the Oklahoma City Children’s Shelter are preparing to close.
The Laura Dester Shelter for abused and neglected children will remain open after the first of the year until all the children have found homes, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
“The Laura Dester Children’s Shelter was never intended to serve as long-term placement for deprived children,” said Kristine Bridges, executive director of the Child Protection Coalition. “However, the children currently living at Laura Dester represent the populations of deprived children for which our child welfare system has a shortage of placements: developmentally delayed services, therapeutic foster care and transition to adulthood care for older children.”
The coalition committee has been meeting with shelter staff and a monitor for the Pinnacle Plan to ensure quality placements for children.
It is also a participant in the Oklahoma Fosters statewide campaign. It has set a goal to recruit more than 1,000 foster families by the end of June by rallying state, tribal and local governments with businesses, nonprofits and the faith communities.