Group homes are pivotal in Oklahoma's child welfare reform
Jordan recalls the happiest part of her childhood was in a group home in Tipton, living in a cottage with girls and a married couple.
At age 4, she landed there when her mother left because of domestic violence and her father's addictions led to neglecting his three children. An aunt voluntarily placed the children in the group home.
She remembers playing softball and basketball, reading, getting good grades and looking up to the older girls. After five years, she was reunited with her mother, who moved the family to Florida.
"That was emotional for me to leave because I didn't know anything of the outside world," she said. "I lived in this slow, small town. When my mom got me, I moved to a fast, big city and was introduced to violence and fear."
The next few years were filled with drinking, running away, fighting, stealing and a couple of cases in juvenile court.
She returned to Oklahoma to complete Thunderbird Academy as part of her probation. Then she became pregnant at age 16 and entered the Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children in Owasso, where she has gone through parenting and job-skills classes and received help in caring for her daughter.
"Anyone who's been in my life has left us," said the 18-year-old. "I have bad detachment anxiety. If I get close to someone, I fear they will leave. I don't know what I'd do without this place. They really do love us."
The role of group homes - also known as "congregate care" - became one of the sticking points in the creation of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services' child welfare improvement plan, called the Pinnacle Plan.
The plan is the foundation of an agreement in a
federal class-action lawsuit settled in January. The plan has a range of
aspects for improvement at a cost of about $30 million in new money for
year one, increasing to $100 million in year five
'A place for them'
The overall desire in the reform effort is to eliminate or minimize shelter and institutional care of battered and neglected children.
The group-home models are designed to help children who may have trouble adjusting to intimate settings, who need more structure to learn acceptable behavior or who may be nearing "aging out" into adulthood.
Out of the 4,728 children in foster care in fiscal year 2011, 493 children were placed in a group home or facility. The children had varying levels of mental health or counseling needs, said DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell.
There are different levels of group-home care, ranging from family-like cottages to 24-hour supervised therapeutic care for children with severe behavioral or mental health issues.
In the plan, emergency shelters are being discontinued for children younger than 6 by next fiscal year and for those younger than 13 in two years. More oversight and restrictions will be placed on group homes with staff working in shifts, which typically serve children with the most challenging behaviors.
For placements in group homes, DHS will need specific assessments and a detailed plan for easing the child back into a home placement or independent living.
The purpose is to avoid putting a child in a home simply because a foster home is not available and to help children leaving the settings, said Deborah Smith, DHS director of the children and family services division.
"Our vision is to have tighter admission criteria and an aggressive discharge plan," Smith said. "It's not saying it is good or bad. It is saying that younger children should stay out of congregate care placements. "
Smith said group homes offer vital services to abused and neglected children who may have special needs for healing and recovery. She pointed to many examples in the state of high-quality programs, with most having community-wide resources.
"We have group homes that are wonderful and doing great work," Smith said. "There is a place for them in our system. We in DHS just need to be careful on our admission and planning."
Much of the reform plan depends on the ramped up recruitment efforts to attract 500 more foster homes and 150 therapeutic foster homes.
"The point is we want kids with families," Smith
said. "Kids, especially those younger than 6, need to be with a family."
'Like a home'
Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children will not be affected much by the improvement plan because it is designed with a couple living full-time with the children in a family-style setting.
"We make this like a home and make it a place for children to feel safe and comfortable," said administrator Scott Pallett. "We want to dispel the myth this is like an orphanage or institution. We want a child to be with family and we work toward that goal. Unfortunately, in some situations it's not possible. So, this is our home for them."
About 25 percent of the children living on the Owasso campus are DHS placements. The rest come from private referrals
"We have children with attachment issues," Pallett said. "It becomes a little more comfortable for our children in the cottages than in a foster or adoptive homes. These are some of the best children with little, if any, behavior problems. But it is still hard. They are abused and neglected."
Faith and education are cornerstones in the program. Weekly attendance at church is required, and children go to neighborhood schools. Scholarships are available for teenagers who age out and want to attend college.
"We give hope and homes for children," Pallett said.
"We want them to know the Lord. We believe the Lord will make a
difference in their lives now and eternally. We hope what children take
with them is Christ in their hearts."
'Healing from trauma'
On the other end of the spectrum is Tulsa Boys' Home, which offers residential services to pre-teen and teenage boys with behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues.
Of the 64 beds, 40 are contracted for DHS placements. The group home has comprehensive therapy programs.
Gregg Conway, executive director of the Tulsa Boys' Home, said the reform plan includes aspects advocates have been seeking for years.
"My dealings with the child welfare system over a 20-year period has been nothing but sterling," he said. "These are the most wonderful, professional, mission-driven people in social work. They are doing the best they can with the resources they have."
Conway said the state needs more foster homes, better training for the foster parents and improved salaries and lower caseloads for workers.
"All those things are addressed in the plan," Conway said. "I am hopeful now, that for the first time, a spotlight has been shined on those issues. Those in the field have been struggling with these very issues for years. Now it's getting the focused attention it deserves.
"But (lawmakers) have to fund this. This is going to require money. Money isn't always the answer to all problems. But in this instance, it's a big part of it."
The group home was founded in 1919 in downtown Tulsa and moved in 1979 to a 160-acre campus in west Sand Springs.
It is not uncommon for boys to enter after a dozen or more failed foster home placements, Conway said.
Younger boys are dealing with attachment issues while older teens are naturally gravitating toward independent living. There may be other problems, such as mental illness or substance use.
"Our goal is true healing from trauma," Conway said. "We work through the process for them forgiving their perpetrators, or those committing offenses against them. That lets them experience true inner healing.
"That is coupled with self-esteem, problem-solving and reasoning to be able to live a well-adjusted life. To unforgive is what keeps people bound up emotionally. If you forgive people who wronged you, it frees your spirit to move past it."
Boys come into the program from all over the state, and capacity is always full.
"Group homes fill the need for quality, loving care
of children needing out-of-home placement, whose behavioral, mental
health and emotional issues are so challenging because of the trauma
they experienced as a child, which is why they were taken out of their
homes," Conway sai
According to the child-welfare improvement plan, children will be placed in group homes only with documented findings that:
The child's needs cannot be met in any other placement.
The child's needs can be met in a specific group home.
The facility is the least restrictive placement where a child's needs can be met.
Reviews will be conducted every 90 days.
No child shall remain more than six months without the approval of a DHS manager.
No child shall remain more than a year without approval from a DHS administrator.
7 May 2012