Thursday, November 19, 2015

Foster care in Oklahoma: Cause for celebration: A baby warehouse is closing!

 I’ve written often on this Blog about the horror of parking place “shelters,”abominable first-stop placements where the worst child welfare systems leave children for weeks or months, to be “cared” for in shifts and then moved on to foster homes or other institutions.

There are fewer "human teddy bears" in Oklahoma
   The primary role of shelters is to turn real flesh-and-blood human beings into human teddy bears who exist for the gratification of the adult staff and volunteers who care for them.

In fact, those are the exact words I used the last time I wrote a post about shelters.  That post was about Oklahoma.  About the hideous conditions in their baby warehouses, about the fact that the state Department of Human Services was desperately searching for even one expert who would speak well of them (they failed), and about how there was probably a foster-care panic underway making everything worse.

But over the past three years, it looks like things have changed - for the better.  In fact, one of the baby warehouses just closed.  There even was a "turning off the lights ceremony." 

Here's what happened.

The first step toward solving a problem is admitting you have one. Oklahoma DHS now admits there was a foster-care panic.  Here's what DHS Communications Coordinator Katelynn Burns told Tulsa People in September:

Burns with OKDHS says the significant spike in children entering state custody was due to a state- and agency-wide fear factor that frequently resulted in the removal of children from their homes.
“There were a series of highly publicized child deaths that kind of put people in a foster care panic,” she says. “People were afraid to keep kids in families if they weren’t sure they were going to be OK.

And, the article says,  

In the past few years, she says the agency’s focus has shifted to preserving families when it is safe for the child by contracting with private agencies to provide comprehensive home-based services to some families of children at risk for foster care.
For example, a child living in a filthy environment might previously have been removed from his home due to perceived neglect, Burns says. With the new approach, OKDHS might contract with private agencies to help teach his parents cleaning and organization skills that would allow the child to remain with his family.

 It's not yet clear how much has been accomplished.  Even before the foster-care panic, Oklahoma was taking away children at a rate far above the national average.  By 2013, the most recent year for which comparative data are available, the rate of removal in Oklahoma was nearly 70 percent above the national average and nearly triple the rate in states that are national models of child welfare reform.

A story in The Oklahoman reports a small drop in the number of children in foster care on any given day, but it gives no figures for the number of children taken away over the course of a year - the best measure of foster-care panic.

But we know this: Enough progress has been made to close a baby warehouse - and reduce the number of children in many other baby warehouses across the state.

That is cause for celebration.