State's Child Welfare Rapped ; Emergency Foster-Care Shelters Are Overused and Funding Is Low, Experts Say

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Emergency foster-care shelters are vastly overused in Oklahoma, which also spends less on child welfare programs than states of similar child populations, according to officials from a national nonprofit dedicated to advocating for families.

Experts from the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation gave a daylong training session this month for the oversight commissioners of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, a handful of lawmakers and child advocates.

'It's doable'

The high use of emergency shelters in Oklahoma was criticized in the federal lawsuit filed by the New York-based nonprofit Children's Rights and was brought up several times during the training.

The two state shelters - Laura Dester in Tulsa and Pauline E. Mayer in Oklahoma City - routinely hit daily numbers above the nationally accepted standard of no more than 25 children. Some experts argue no child younger than 5 should be in a shelter.

The shelters serve newborns to teenagers who have been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect and are waiting for a foster-home placement.

Tulsa's shelter has had at least 51 children a day since Jan. 1, with the highest count of 76, according to DHS records. In December, the shelter population ranged from 54 to 71, including 60 children present on Christmas Day.

The only time the Tulsa shelter has been under the national standard last year was for 20 days in June, with a range of 17 to 23 children.

In Oklahoma City's shelter last year, children 6 and younger stayed an average of 6.2 days and a median stay, or middle point, of 3.7 days. There were an average of 10.8 children in that age group, DHS records show.

Of all the children at the shelter, the average stay was 9.5 days and the median was 3.5 days, meaning half the children stayed longer and half stayed shorter.

Many states focus too much on "deep-end services" for seriously troubled children, rather than on prevention of those services, said Tracey Feild, director and manager of the child welfare strategy group for the foundation.

In 1980, the federal government banned states from using a major source of child welfare funding - Title IV-E of the Social Security Act - on public shelters, leading to most states ceasing their operation of group facilities.

"It was a philosophical statement that the government will not pay for children in public institutions because the quality was not high," Feild said. "Since that time, you can go state-to-state and see the closing of shelters or see them scaled back. Very few allow for children younger than 5 because development will have a very negative impact."

As an example, New York City has about 14,000 children in care with one shelter that averages 25 to 30 children ages 12 or older per night. About 25 percent of foster children go through the shelter, and 70 percent of those are placed within one day.

"If you can do it in New York City, you can do it in Oklahoma," Feild said. "You have to focus on recruiting foster families homes and make them available. It's doable."

'Community is a part of it'

Key to bringing down the daily shelter populations is recruiting and retaining foster homes, according to child-welfare experts.

"The work doesn't just fall on DHS, but the community is a part of that," said the foundation's Denise Goodman. …