By Ed Lake
Oklahoma has made a substantial and wise investment over the past four years in improving its child welfare services. I have the privilege of leading the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the opportunity to see and hear stories every day that demonstrate why we do this work with such passion. This work isn’t just about following sound and effective policies and practices; it’s about people—children, families, foster parents, and case workers.
It’s about a young boy who had been in our foster care system for quite a while. His parents’ rights were terminated and he had been waiting for quite some time to find an adoptive home. Thanks to reduced caseloads, workers had time to extensively research and engage this boy’s extended biological family. Through these efforts, they discovered his parents had turned their lives around for the better after losing custody of their son, had more children, and were raising them successfully. With some extra work, we were able to safely and successfully reunite this boy with his parents and his new brothers and sisters.
If it weren’t for the state’s commitment and investment in the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan, this particular story might not have been possible. Child welfare caseloads were simply too high for workers to spend that much time on one child’s case.
While we are not ready to claim total victory yet, we have gained such momentum in making improvements to the system that we can take a moment to proudly reflect on how far we have come. Not only have we been able to hire more workers and decrease caseloads, we have also increased their salaries. There are thousands more foster parents available to our children and they are being reimbursed at a higher rate. When children must be removed from their homes, the vast majority no longer are placed first in emergency shelters, but in family homes. The youngest children are almost never placed in a shelter.
All of these things are elements of a significantly different child welfare system than what existed in Oklahoma just four short years ago. And we have made these improvements despite caring for 2,000 more children in foster care than what the original plan was designed to address.
We are also working with some of the best child welfare and child advocacy minds in the country. Organizations like Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation have also made significant investments into Oklahoma’s reforms by sending their staff, at no cost to the state, to bring proven best practices to our work. These organizations share our same goals—to prevent the need for foster care, but when it is necessary, ensuring we have a high-quality, high-performing system that does the right things for kids and families.
The Pinnacle Plan has an ambitious five-year timeline to show good-faith efforts toward making substantial and sustained progress in meeting certain goals. While we may need a little more time to finish what we started, I have complete faith that our dedicated child welfare workforce and all of the public and private partners who are engaged in working with us will soon accomplish what we set out to do.
While we are still challenged to meet all of our goals, we all remain energized by the growing number of successful outcomes being achieved—like the little six-year-old girl with significant disabilities in our care. When her foster mother required emergency medical treatments late one evening, our staff challenged themselves to find another foster home for this child. No one wanted to see that little girl, who used a wheelchair and could not speak or hear, have to go to bed in a shelter. They didn’t give up and engaged everyone statewide until they found another foster home that same night. Our staff didn’t go to these efforts because they weren’t allowed to place children in shelters—it was because they didn’t want to. To me, that is a powerful example of the culture change that has taken place in our system and in this state. That little girl, and thousands more like her, are motivating us to do our best for them every day. Every child deserves a strong and caring family.
Ed Lake is director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.