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Keeping Oklahoma kids out of foster care is goal of 'Intensive' program

A recently-launched program works to keep Oklahoma children safe without removing them from their families. [Metro Creative Connection image]
A recently-launched program works to keep Oklahoma children safe without removing them from their families. [Metro Creative Connection image]

Oklahoma City — Traditionally, child welfare workers in Oklahoma have had two choices when they see a family is in trouble: either recommend the parents seek help or ask a court to remove the children.

About three years ago, the state started exploring a middle path, called “intensive safety services,” where a therapist spends up to 10 hours a week with a family and teaches skills to try to keep the children safe without removing them. After parents complete the initial intense therapy, they continue to meet with a counselor for up to six months.

As of July, 337 families with 767 children had participated, and about 80 percent of the children remained at home.

Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said the goal was to reduce the number of children coming into foster care who could have stayed with their parents, because being removed is traumatic for kids. Changes to federal law rolling out in 2019 will make it easier for the state to focus on keeping families together, she said.

“Foster care will be reserved for the children with the most need,” she said.

The department's workers continue to visit the families to ensure that children are safe, and families may have a relative or friend who serves as a “safety plan monitor,” Powell said. If parents aren't cooperating, or the situation is unsafe, the department can then file a petition with the courts to remove the children, she said.

While intensive services are available around the state, not everyone receives them. Some who qualify based on a risk assessment instead are assigned to usual services like foster care, so it's possible to compare the two groups and determine if children are better off with intensive services.

A partnership among the department, NorthCare and the private Arnall Family Foundation will allow about 140 more families to receive the services over the next three years, which the department says is necessary to keep up with demand. The foundation will pay $142,220 so that therapists with NorthCare can serve more families in Oklahoma County, and the state will pay the foundation $9,480 for each case where a child remains at home safely for at least a year, with payments stopping if the foundation receives back as much as it spent. The state pays nothing if children end up in foster care or are abused at home.

Lindsay Laird, project manager for child welfare initiatives at the Arnall foundation, said it was attracted to working with the department and NorthCare because they are using an evidence-based program, with the goal of improving services and saving money.

“From our perspective, it had all the key elements,” she said.

Betty, an Oklahoma County mother who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family's privacy, said the intensive safety program helped her through the process of bringing her two sons home. Her husband was accused of physical and sexual abuse, but not charged, and the boys stayed with a relative while she completed classes for victims of domestic violence and non-offending parents of abuse victims.

The boys returned home the week before Christmas, though her husband still is completing classes and seeing a counselor. Overall, it was as good an experience as it could be, because she knew where the boys were and was able to continue visiting them, she said.

That wouldn't have been an option if the boys had been placed in foster care, because courts tend to set strict visitation schedules, Powell said. The hope is that, by avoiding the court system, parents will stay motivated to keep working on skills to raise their children safely, she said.

“When the child is placed in DHS custody, it works very differently,” she said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›