Rogers County DHS officials say there is no shortage of foster homes or caseworkers in the county, despite what a lawsuit filed last week in federal court alleges.

Maggie Box has been with DHS for 30 years and now serves as director of the Rogers County Department of Human Services, which employs 24 child welfare caseworkers. She says the shortage addressed in the lawsuit, and claims that such a shortage has led to abuse and neglect of foster children because of lack of employees to conduct supervision, is not the case in Rogers County.

“We are the fastest growing county in the state, and they overstaff our county to take care of any turnover,” Box said.

The high turnover rate of DHS child welfare caseworkers is cited in the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of nine foster children, including a 4-year-old Rogers County child, as one reason the system allegedly fails children.

Box said Rogers County has 85 foster and kinship homes with 175 foster children in out-of-home placements. She claims there are enough foster homes in the county to handle the number of foster children.

The 4-year-old child listed in the suit allegedly was moved through six placements in two years, including two with family members that were unsafe and led to her sexual abuse. She is currently in a temporary foster home and is likely to be moved again.

According to one foster child’s claim, he is being housed in a group home in Tulsa which is said to be near I-44, “seedy bars, strip clubs and truck stops” and is “so unsafe and unsanitary” that the children staying there — ranging in age from 5 to 18 — often run away “for their own safety.”

Heavy caseloads and lack of supervision over cases is also cited in the suit as the cause of the abuse and neglect of foster children.

According to Box, Rogers County caseworkers are not overloaded.

“We try to keep the caseloads under 20 cases a month,” Box said. “But our goal is to not concentrate on the number of cases each caseworker handles in a month but the number of children. It would be good to have more caseworkers because I would like to see our caseloads go down per worker.”

Box said she personally reports on each foster child in Rogers County to ensure that home visits and supervision is being provided as required.

The training required of child welfare caseworkers includes two weeks at a training academy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, one week on the job at the DHS county office, then two more weeks at the academy. Beyond that, Box said, caseworkers are required to participate in ongoing training throughout their employment at the agency.

There are no degree requirements for becoming a caseworker, according to Box. However, of the four child welfare supervisors in Rogers County, two have master’s degrees and two have bachelor’s degrees in social work.

Box said there are current vacancies for caseworkers and she is hoping to hire more caseworkers at a job fair in at Northeast Technology Center on March 11 and 12.

Regardless of Box’s take on the Rogers County facility regarding foster homes and caseworkers, the lawsuit alleges, Rogers County child was not properly supervised, which led to her abuse and neglect.

During her nearly two years in DHS custody, the lawsuit alleges the child has been assigned five different DHS caseworkers due to “excessive turnover in the DHS workforce.” The suit also claims the proper background checks were not conducted by Rogers County when the child was placed in a kinship home. Only after the child was placed there was it discovered that the family member had been formerly accused of child abuse. It was during that time that the child was sexually abused by her older sister, and the two were moved together to another foster home for several months before they were finally separated.

The child is represented by court-appointed attorney Leslie A. Ellis Kissinger of Claremore. Kissinger has not returned phone messages left over the past week.

Even with the claims that foster homes and foster children are not properly supervised or monitored, DHS claims Oklahoma has one of the best foster care monitoring systems in any state in the nation and that Oklahoma was one of five states who could “document that at least 90 percent of their foster children received monthly caseworker visits” despite the high turnover of caseworkers the suit claims interferes with proper monitoring.

Box said turnover in the agency hinges on many factors.

“Part of it is caseworkers go to different county agencies or they need more money,” she said. “And others have a spouse that is relocated and we work with them to also relocate the caseworker to the county they are moving to.

“But being in child welfare is a hard job. I’ve done it myself and it’s real lonely going out in the county and knocking on doors by yourself. I’m sure the factor of high caseloads can contribute to the number of turnovers.”

Although the work is often thankless, Box said it can be rewarding as well, especially when the system works for a child in state custody.

In a prepared statement, DHS stated it looks forward to “showing the strengths of Oklahoma’s system and improving it where appropriate,” and that “all can be improved.”

Improvement in the foster care system is what the suit is asking for instead of a monetary judgment.

From 2001 to 2005, a federal report named Oklahoma among the worst three states in the country for confirmed abuse or neglect of foster children and in four of those five years, the state ranked the worst or second worst in the nation. For two of those years, the report stated that Oklahoma “had the single highest rate of confirmed abuse of foster children in state custody in the nation.”

According to a press release from the state office of Oklahoma DHS, as of Sept. 30, 2005, the average length of stay for children remaining in foster care was 21.2 months. However, a claim in the suit states that several of the foster children have been in state custody for more than five years, with one child remaining in state custody for 10 years. The state claims the average length of stay was “seven months less than the national average of 28.8 months.”

Addressing the number of foster homes in the state, the suit states DHS has failed to develop and maintain a sufficient number of foster care placements necessary for the foster children to be placed in safe environments and kept from harm. It claims DHS has failed to correct the problem over the past 10 years since emerging problems with the system were discovered.



Contact Krystal J. Carman at 341-1101, newsed@cswbell.net.