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August 15, 2013

Number of children in Okla. state custody rising

OKLAHOMA CITY —

A growing number of children have come under state custody in the last four years, and that’s hampering efforts to meet goals that are part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit over the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ treatment of children, according to a state child welfare official.

The Oklahoman reports that DHS officials told a joint meeting of four citizens’ advisory panels on Wednesday that the number of children in state custody rose from about 8,000 in 2009 to 10,428 as of Wednesday.

“We’re not where we want to be,” said Deborah Smith, DHS’s director of child welfare services. But, she added, progress is being made.

Smith said 796 new traditional foster homes were recruited by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 15 more than the goal.

But she said finding the goal of 150 new therapeutic foster homes for children with emotional problems has been more difficult, with 86 located.

The growing number of children in state custody also contributed to DHS falling short of its goal of eliminating the use of state shelters for children under age 2 by Dec. 31, 2012.

Smith said 47 children under age 2 spent at least one night in shelters during the first 6 months of this year. She said 20 of those children fall under an exemption that allows shelter stays for young children who are part of large sibling groups, medically fragile or babies of teen mothers in custody.

Smith said she chose to let the other 27 spend the night, despite the agreed-upon goal, because workers were not comfortable with alternative family placements or the foster homes available at the time.

The agency also needs to have been hiring and training about 80 workers a month for the past 9 or 10 months, but has only been able to hire about 50 workers a month, she said.

“It’s scary work,” Smith said. “It’s overwhelming.”

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