Child Welfare: A Labor of Love - MetroFamily Magazine
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Child Welfare: A Labor of Love

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 11 minutes 

Midge Woodard has worked in child welfare in various capacities for more than 40 years. When she experiences an especially hard day, one little girl’s face from early in her career comes back to her.

“I found a little girl in a shed in Muskogee,” Woodard said with tears in her eyes. “All she wanted was for me to take
her to the park. She has kept me going because I know there could be more children living in sheds or who just want someone to take them to the park.”After almost 30 years with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS), Woodard has worked for Sunbeam Family Services for the past 13 years and currently serves as the agency’s foster care director. She takes great pride in Sunbeam’s collaboration with OKDHS to train and recruit foster parents, as well as to place foster children in safe, supportive homes while they wait for permanency in either returning home or being adopted. 

OKDHS’s partnership with private and nonprofit agencies like Sunbeam stems from the settlement of a class-action, civil rights lawsuit against Oklahoma’s foster care system. The Pinnacle Plan was launched in 2012 with an overall goal to improve foster care in our state. It is not a quick fix for the deficiencies in the foster care system, but positive change is slowly casting a new light on child welfare in our state. Woodard said the plan has launched a collaboration among local agencies like nothing she’s ever seen before in the foster system.

Next page: the development of the Pinnacle Plan


The development of the Pinnacle Plan

In 2008, Children’s Rights, a New York City-based child advocacy group, sued OKDHS officials on behalf of the state’s foster children, with a primary concern of children in state custody being harmed in foster homes and state shelters. The lawsuit’s settlement came in 2012, with the Pinnacle Plan. OKDHS has five years to make improvements in seven key areas, or the organization could face further legal action.

When Jennifer Abney and her husband moved to Oklahoma City from California in 2007, they were struck by the number of heinous news stories about foster care in Oklahoma. Now founder and executive director of Angels Foster Family Network of Oklahoma City, Abney and her team have been key in helping reform foster care statewide. Transitioning the recruitment, training and support of foster families to private agencies is part of the Pinnacle Plan’s initiative to recruit more foster parents. 

“Using a private agency for foster care placement frees up OKDHS to focus on birth families and their situations,” Abney said. “In turn, we have become the advocates for foster families and foster children.”

The Pinnacle Plan is also focused on hiring more child welfare workers, paying them more and reducing caseloads, as well as eliminating shelters in favor of family-like settings for foster children and reducing a child’s number of placements. When the Pinnacle Plan was developed in 2012, there were about 8,500 children in state custody. That number has topped more than 11,000 in the years since, and as of June 2015 stands at 10,764. 

“All the goals and estimates of everything we wanted to accomplish in the Pinnacle Plan became outdated,” said Sheree Powell, OKDHS director of communications and community relations. “Our staff and foster parent needs have increased.”

That increase is attributed to the combination of the very public battle between Children’s Rights and OKDHS, highly publicized deaths of children who were or had been in state custody.Many case workers, judges and district attorneys became fearful of media coverage, retribution or disastrous outcomes, and children were removed from their homes at an increased rate.

Currently, there are not enough approved foster homes in Oklahoma. To meet the Pinnacle Plan’s target goal of 904 new traditional foster homes in 2015, 124 new homes are still needed.

Next page: improving foster parent support with private agencies


Improving foster parent support with private agencies

“This new system is changing the way we foster in our state,” Abney said. “DHS has ensured that with all of the new contracted agencies, foster families are getting more support than ever before. What the system needs now is more families to open their homes and their hearts to a child or sibling group in need.”

Angels is one of four private placement agencies contracted directly with OKDHS to train, recruit and support foster parents. Other agencies, like Sunbeam Family Services and Anna’s House Foundation, are sub-contracted through one of the four primary agencies, creating a web of support for foster families, offering training, support groups, therapy and material goods. 

Foster parent training has become more flexible, offered online or in foster parents’ homes and focused on trauma-based parenting. Child Welfare Specialist Dashon Sampson said the trainings make foster families better prepared to accept children who have experienced trauma into their homes, making long-term placements more feasible.

“The families have had a better understanding of the child’s reactions and behaviors to being placed in care, or to placement changes,” said Sampson. “This has greatly improved placement stability on my caseload through families appropriately responding to those behaviors, and the child in turn responding more positively to the family.”

The training and support these agencies provide has led to increased foster family retention. Abney compares the former county care retention rate of around 30 percent to Angels’ current 96 percent retention rate. Long-term placements have become the norm, with most agencies intent on moving children only to be reunited with siblings or when they need a different level of care. In 2000, the average foster child under age 3 lived in three to five locations their first year of placement. Woodard said Sunbeam has only had to move three foster children prior to permanency in her 13 years, all because they needed higher levels of care.

Sunbeam addressed the need for more foster families by hiring a full-time recruiter, allowing the agency to recruit and certify homes quickly. In 2014, 15 new homes were certified through Sunbeam; prior to that, six or seven was the agency’s record high in a year.

Foster parents benefit from having two case workers, one through OKDHS and one through their agency of choice. Agency case workers make regular visits to their foster families, attend biological parent visitations and prepare for and attend court dates. Having the assistance of the private agencies helps foster parents and biological parents better facilitate relationships with each other, an important element of making biological parents feel more comfortable with the foster arrangement.

As a former foster parent and current OKDHS child welfare specialist, Lynette Osburn has seen incredible results when foster parents intentionally bridge with and mentor biological families.

“I was ensuring that the visitations had a purpose and modeling the behavior for the biological parents to help them become the parents they wanted to be,” Osburn said. “This contact will often result in a lifetime connection with the biological family and helps everyone work together for what is best for the children.”

Anna’s House foster parents Jeff and Laura DeGiacomo feel that agencies are better able to provide holistic support systems for foster families to succeed. He and his wife can concentrate on caring for the children placed in their home, while Anna’s House talks to DHS on a weekly basis on their behalf, answers their questions in a timely manner, prepares them for court and ensures the sometimes overwhelming paperwork is taken care of and turned in on time.

“Before, DHS workers were stretched too thin and many aspects were neglected, causing frustration and burn out,” said Jeff DeGiacomo. “I have seen some change in the way DHS operates in such a way to support and encourage foster parents in recent days. Agencies have been one of the biggest ways, but case workers have been more willing to make sure foster families have what they need, too.”

Tricia Howell, bridge deputy director for OKDHS Child Welfare Services, has encouraged change in how all OKDHS employees treat foster families, with a greater emphasis on accommodating them and showing support in every greeting, email, phone call and meeting. She credits OKDHS’s partnership with private agencies in lending more support to foster families than OKDHS was able to before.

“Families now get more time and attention than we had been able to give because of our workloads,” said Howell. 

Like with any major change in an agency of its size, the process has not been perfect and there are still growing pains. 

“It has been a little challenging,” said Jena Collins, child placement coordinator for Anna’s House. “There are DHS workers who aren’t familiar with agencies so they may not know what we bring to the table. We are here to support them and support families. When there are times we aren’t in agreement about the management of the case, we just maintain a level of professionalism and respect and make sure that family is supported.”

Next page: hiring and training staff to meet the need


Hiring and training staff to meet the need

Despite the assistance of the outside agencies, Powell and most other OKDH staff agree those in child welfare are still responsible for an overwhelming number of cases. Foster parents are keenly aware of it, too. Many mention their caseworkers are caring and compassionate, but overworked and overwhelmed.

OKDHS has hired more than 600 child welfare services staff members since the beginning of the Pinnacle Plan, with a goal of hiring 200 more positions this year. The influx of staff is an effort to decrease caseloads, but the hiring and training of that many individuals takes considerable time. Osburn says this process is critical to have a well-prepared workforce that understands the evidence-based solutions to meet the safety, permanency and well-being of the families served by the agency.

“The hardest thing is we actually have the need today for them to do the job,” said Howell. “It takes several months from hiring, training and shadowing. The work they do is critical; you can’t just turn someone loose.”

Howell said the majority of OKDHS workers were leaving within the first year, and they have reduced turnover by better supporting seasoned staff so new workers can take on cases in a graduated system.

“We’ve talked with our experienced staff about this strategy,” said Howell. “We recognize they are overloaded, but it’s temporary, and if we do this right, we should have staff that will stay.”

Osburn said OKDHS has done a better job of recognizing employee successes and giving raises, all in an effort to retain workers. She has seen a dramatic reduction in caseloads, with several workers at the Pinnacle Plan goal level of 15 children or below.

“Workers are able to spend more time to get to know families and in turn cause better outcomes and less trauma in the long run,” said Marissa Edstedt, child welfare supervisor in OKDHS Permanency Planning.

With reduced caseloads and private agencies supporting foster families, workers can provide improved and individualized evidence-based practices and treatment programs for biological families.

“Services provided to our families have become much more specific, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Edstedt, which helps workers better address both the family and children’s needs and allows everyone to move forward with the healing process.

Along with increased staff and decreased caseloads, Dr. Deb Shropshire, deputy director of Child Welfare Community Partnerships, notes better accountability from top to bottom in child welfare, including a semi-recent reorganization from the field case worker to the child welfare director. OKDHS has developed a stronger relationship with the Department of Mental Health to assist with mental health services and crisis response, an improvement to a system that hasn’t been well-equipped to deal with mental health issues.

A recent grant focused on trauma and its effects will develop standardized tools for case workers to better screen foster children and pick up on more subtle trauma-related symptoms, with the intent of getting children the treatment needed sooner through a streamlined referral process.

“We’ve come a long way,” Shropshire said. “Although there is more to go, especially in terms of continuing to hire and retain child welfare case workers so they won’t be so overloaded on cases, working on better communication between workers and foster families, and continuing to engage and involve all kinds of community partners in supporting these kids and families.”

Next page: supporting families to keep kids out of the system


Supporting families to keep kids out of the system

OKDHS is expanding its home-and-community-based services for families and, thanks to federal grant monies, adding intensive safety services, used to preserve families and keep children out of the system who can be safely cared for in their homes. 

“I would like to see prevention services become more of a staple within the agency and removal become the exception, not the rule,” said Sampson. “Preventative services help families correct issues without the trauma associated with removing children from their homes when it is possible for children to remain safe in these situations.”

When a family is referred to OKDHS, their situations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether that family can work with therapists and other service providers to make improvements. Powell gives the examples of substance abuse or domestic violence not resulting in physical abuse to the child as potentially eligible for intensive safety services rather than child removal. Certain cases of child abuse, depending on the type and severity, may also be eligible.

“There are a lot of eyes on families when they get referred to DHS,” said Powell. “If we decide a child can be maintained safely at home, there are a lot of people in that home to help us monitor. That really changes a parent’s outlook and responsibility level when someone is going to be in their house every day. And if they don’t do what they are supposed to do, or a child becomes unsafe, they can be removed immediately.”

New to this system, OKDHS will help remove barriers to accessing these services.

“We have always had services available, but it’s been up to the families to get to them,” said Powell. “If there is no transportation or they live in a rural area, those challenges can go unmet. So we prepare the families to access services and make sure they do access those services.”

While this method doesn’t 100 percent guarantee the safety of a child, neither does any foster home or biological or adopted home. According to Shropshire, evidence shows that kids function better in the long run when they stay in their homes.

“If we can get those kids and family to function better, kids in that setting have a better outcome than if you move them to foster care,” said Shropshire, who cautions community members to be “careful about judging the quality of someone’s parenting. Any one of us is one or two steps removed from where these families are. When you try to identify with people, that changes your perspective.”

Howell agrees that case workers have to separate their own values from the families they investigate. 

“Our workers have to look at that family from the perspective that if you feel like your child or a child you love would be safe there, not that they necessarily look and act the same way you do,” said Howell.

Next page: closing shelters in favor of family environments


Closing shelters in favor of family environments

Oklahoma’s two state-run shelters for foster children will be closed by the end of 2015, a huge step forward for the Pinnacle Plan but a major cause for concern among others. 

“We know that if children have to be temporarily removed from their families, they are best served when they are placed with foster parents, not in shelters,” said Mason Rodgers, OKDHS foster care recruiter. “The closing of the shelters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa is a significant step for children in state custody, but it does present some challenges for DHS. We need to have additional foster homes come on board to meet this challenge.”

According to Powell, it’s been a major shift for those at OKDHS to think about how to operate without a shelter, but she notes that out-of-state child welfare advocates have been appalled by Oklahoma’s practice to place babies in shelters. Unlike a foster family setting, children in shelters have continually changing caregivers, and for very young children especially, this can permanently stunt development, translate into an inability to bond with and trust adults and even keep them from developing empathy and conscience. 

“The only way we could force ourselves into better practices is to close the two state-run shelters,” said Powell. 

Those better practices include foster home recruitment and better investigations at the scene when a child is removed from a home, primarily to determine if a kinship placement can be found before a traditional foster home is requested. Workers are collecting more information about potential placements at removal, including searches for family, friends and other adults the child knows and trusts. If a kinship placement is found, federal regulations allow DHS to use a shortened process to initially place a child. A background check and home walk-through are performed immediately to check for health or safety hazards. If a kinship placement is to become long-term, foster parents must go through the traditional foster parent training to receive monthly reimbursement from the state.

These policies haven’t been received well by some foster parents and community members.

Shelter usage has in fact increased over the past year. In May 2015, 13 foster children age 1 and under spent a total of 188 nights in a shelter. That number has fluctuated over the past year from 32 nights in a month to May’s all-year total, and is significantly higher than May 2014’s total of 44 shelter nights for the same age group. However, 99.3 percent of children age 1 and under did not have a shelter stay in May 2015, so the majority of foster children under age 1 are being kept out of shelters. Shelter nights from May 2014 to May 2015 increased among ages 2 to 5 and slightly increased for ages 13 and over.

The Pauline Meyer Shelter in Oklahoma City currently houses 10 children, and OKDHS is working to place them before the shelter closes in October. OKDHS is starting the same process for Tulsa, which will close by the end of the year. There are other shelters throughout the state, run by youth services and private contractors, that OKDHS will still have access to should they need to place a child temporarily. But the intent will remain that children need to be in a family environment to function properly and feel the love all children deserve to have. 

Shropshire recalls a survey of teens in foster care, including a teenager at a shelter who had previously bounced from placement to placement.

“He said, ‘I just need to be in a normal family because I’ve never done that. Someday I want to be a dad and have a normal family,’” she said. “We need to surround these kids with people who won’t give up on them and will stick with them even when they don’t understand them.”

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