Ginnie Graham: Kids in greatest need are reason Laura Dester Shelter hasn't closed yet
Tulsa World - 1/7/2018
The youngest child at the Laura Dester Shelter is a nonverbal 6-year-old boy who has autism and can't resist setting off fire alarms. Staff smile when they speak of him, more endeared than frustrated by his curiosity and developmental disability.
"He sees that alarm and just lights up," said Andrew Robertson, shelter director. "What we've learned about autism is that some need those sensory things of lights and bells and some are bothered by it. ... We have all those wide range of kids."
The shelter also houses a former runaway who got tired of living on the streets. He will turn 18 this month and needs help transitioning to adulthood.
An 11-year-old deaf child arrived with no communication skills because his parents refused to believe he had a disability.
Then, there's the 11-year-old boy who was looking forward to spending the holidays with a possible permanent foster mom.
He's already had one or two placements that didn't work out. He's had anger problems and sometimes reacts before thinking. He has some learning disabilities.
"There are people here who are nice to me, and I have a lot of friends here," the boy said. "The people here helped me when I get mad. I used to cut up all the time. ... I'm a lot more better now. I'm not getting into trouble that much."
The Laura Dester Shelter was supposed to be closed by now.
Three years ago, officials at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services announced the closure of the state's emergency shelters for children in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma City shelter shut its doors more than a year ago.
Laura Dester is nothing like it used to be, from the needs of the kids to the effort to find them permanent homes.
"It is still a shelter, but the way we have to operate it is different," said Misty McGaugh, field manager for shelter care and therapeutic foster care. "Three years ago this was a multidimensional facility with services in place for kids who were coming through. The evolution of those services has had to occur with the changing population.
"Many of these kids are complex-needs kids. They have trauma needs, medical needs, emotional needs and developmental needs. Some have one; some have many. So you have to think about in your programming how to weave the trauma-informed approach through your facility to operate it differently now than we did three years ago."
Prior to the closure announcement, the first place foster children were taken was a shelter. It was intended to be a temporary stop for children while social workers found a foster placement.
A federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2008 alleged abuses of children in foster care including a misuse of the Tulsa and Oklahoma City shelters. Instead of hours or a couple of days, it had become the norm for kids to be in overcrowded shelters for months.
Part of the Pinnacle Plan, which is the improvement plan stemming from the 2012 negotiated settlement agreement, was to eliminate shelter use.
To do this successfully, DHS needed to recruit enough foster homes and have adequate group-home settings for the number of abused and neglected children coming into state care.
Efforts were launched including the Oklahoma Fosters program in November 2015 and other community efforts to recruit homes. Since June 2015, foster homes have increased 7 percent.
The agency also shifted its foster placement practice to focus first on kinship relationships, which are people who are related to or know the child. Research shows a kinship foster home has a stronger chance of successful bonds.
In the past year, DHS went from having 35 percent of foster children going to kinship as a first placement to 42 percent.
These efforts eliminated shelter use for children younger than 2. Between November 2014 and 2017, shelter use overall decreased by 61 percent.
"Now, kids coming into care, their first placement is into families," said Jami Ledoux, child welfare division director. "That is one of the most important things people need to understand. That was the primary purpose of moving into this direction. We wanted all of our kids to be with families."
Then, some unexpected obstacles come up.
When the Pinnacle Plan was approved, Oklahoma had about 8,000 foster children. That number drastically shot up, hitting a high of about 11,300 children in October 2014, straining the recruitment efforts.
About 8,800 children are currently in foster care.
Also, DHS focused on raising standards in group homes because that was the most likely place maltreatment would occur. Several contracts were terminated by the agency or voluntarily surrendered due to the changes.
The number of group-home beds available since July 2015 has decreased by 26 percent, and therapeutic homes have fallen by 50 percent.
Add to this a state budget with consecutive revenue failures leading to cuts across all agencies including mental health, health, education and other divisions of DHS serving families. Programs reduced or eliminated include those for child abuse prevention.
What emerged was a group of foster children and youths who presented more challenges in finding placements. The Laura Dester Shelter averages between 35 and 45 residents daily, with a low of nine.
Many have health, intellectual, developmental or behavioral disorders mixed in with the trauma of having been abused or neglected. Some have multiple issues.
"Laura Dester is reflective of our gaps in the system overall. Not just the child welfare system but the whole system children are part of," Ledoux said. "What's happened as a result is that Laura Dester has become representative of this group of kids - it's a small number of kids - who we don't have any other resource in our system to serve them."
Special placements needed
This doesn't mean these children aren't able to live in a home. It means a more intensive and focused effort is required to find the right fit.
"It's not that these kids can't be served in family-like settings," said Whitney Holllingsworth, program field representative for shelter placement. "It's that these kids need planned placements with transitions and supports.
"That's what we've increased our capacity around is planned placements with services in place. Because they are receiving supportive services here, we can better identify what is successful and can transition that service into a home."
The shelter has been able to bring in individualized resources for the children.
Partnerships have been formed with local nonprofits such as Family & Children's Services and the J.D. McCarty Center for children with developmental disabilities in Norman.
Internally, the silos between DHS divisions have been toppled, particularly between child welfare and developmental disability services, to enhance recruitment, said Cody Inman, special assistant to the DHS director.
"We work across divisions to see where programs overlap and where can efficiencies be found," said Inman. "Oklahoma Fosters program has done an excellent job driving traditional foster families into the system. Now we need to continue that and drive special-needs or complex-care placements into the system.
"We now know better who the kids are (at Laura Dester). ... Once we start to drive these particular families into the door, and they have the heart to do it and are the right fit, we'll be able to see more of these kids able to go out the door into family-like settings."
Once a family is identified, Laura Dester Shelter staff work with them to ensure they have the training, equipment, resources and support needed. In some cases, workers are trying to reunite a child with family by providing those services to the parents.
"If kids are needing a higher level of treatment, they are getting that before they come here," Hollingsworth said. "Now we need to find that family who will help work through the rest of the support with them. ...
"We've identified these kids could make it in a family. It has to be the right-fit family with the right services and support. That takes time, effort and resources that we are having to develop as we go."
'Not an easy
The $12.4 million multi-building Laura Dester Shelter campus at 7318 E. Pine St. opened in 2010 after a community-wide fundraising campaign raised public and private money.
The effort to build the facility was led by the Tulsa Advocates for the Protection of Children.
The previous shelter was located near Eighth Street and Quincy Avenue, which had been used as the Tulsa Boys Home between 1948 and 1978. The property had become antiquated, dilapidated and overcrowded.
The campus features four residential-style cottages, an administration building with an activity center, gymnasium and outdoor basketball court. But it needs to be updated for this population, including reinforced walls and windows.
Currently, the shelter needs donated items to stock its incentive store. Children earn tokens for good behavior and can buy things like candy, small electronics, fidget spinners and other prizes.
The shelter is seeking sponsors to build sensory rooms for autistic children who need sight and sound stimulation and for those who require silence. Volunteers are needed for crafts, exercise activities and other classes.
"Keeping them busy is a goal," Robertson said.
About 70 staff are at the shelter with a ratio of 8-to-1 or 6-to-1, depending on the age of the child. It is moving toward a ratio of 4-to-1, with some children needing one-on-one care.
It is not a lockdown facility because the children are not adjudicated or in treatment. They are victims of abuse and neglect waiting for a permanent home.
Still, some of the 16-and-older youths walk away. Staff contact law enforcement to help find kids but don't have authority to incarcerate them."They have the same civil rights as every other kid has," Hollingsworth said. "If these kids qualified for a higher level of intervention, we would absolutely be accessing that. There is so much oversight on these facility. There is someone in here every third day making sure we are doing the best we can for children."
"Our whole job is to see if there is a better place to move children for a more appropriate placement and to make sure the kids on campus are safe," Hollingsworth said. "We are facing the same obstacles and struggles as parents when their kids are making poor choices. We have to navigate that just like a parent would, and it is tough. There is not an easy fix, and it's not black and white."
Closure still coming
For a child to be placed at the shelter, approval must come from Ledoux as division director.
That means a worker must check all available foster placements, go to the district and deputy director for assistance, and exhaust efforts with community family supports and shelters before calling the state office.
"We walk through what they have done because we want to make sure kids are not coming here who could be placed somewhere else," Ledoux said. "That's how we know with the kids who are here, there really is no other resource available right now in our state to serve them."
The plan to close Laura Dester has not changed.
"We still want Laura Dester to close. We still have a goal of not having any children in the state in shelters," Ledoux said. "We want all of our kids with families, so we are still going to diligently pursue that goal. We don't have a timeline for that. We have to have capacity for placing all foster children but also must have the supportive services for kids with higher needs.
"We're still working towards that, and we're not going to stop moving on that path. But this is where we're at. When you set out with a goal, sometimes there are unforeseen things that happen, and that's part of what happened with us."
For information about becoming a foster parent, call 1-800-376-9729 or visit okfosters.org and specify if interested in special needs kids at the Laura Dester Shelter.