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Oklahoma’s foster family shortage forces children from their communities

Child-welfare worker Kaitlin Davis reads to foster children who are among her cases.
Hannah France
Oklahoma Public Media Exchange (OPMX)
Child-welfare worker Kaitlin Davis reads to foster children who are among her cases.

Kaitlin Davis recently drove four hours round trip from Lawton to Guthrie to check on a 6-year-old girl who was recovering from the flu and visit with her foster parents about how to ease her into upcoming visits with her dad.

A week earlier, Davis drove more than three hours round trip to visit a 12-year-old boy who is receiving treatment at Integris Mental Health in Spencer.

And two days before that, Davis drove nine hours to and from Idabel to discuss college plans with an unusually hygienic teenager who had just turned 17. They celebrated his birthday with Braum’s ice cream sundaes and a new pack of deodorant.

As a child welfare worker, Davis is responsible for 15 children who were removed from their homes in Comanche County because of abuse or neglect and placed in the care of families across the state. Only three of the children under her watch remained in Comanche County where Davis lives, which means she spends most of her workdays on the road checking on the other 12.

Without enough foster families to support the more than 5,100 children in Oklahoma’s child welfare system, many children are moved hours from their homes, increasing the strain on youth, foster parents, case workers and families trying to regain custody.

One-third of Oklahoma children in foster care were moved to homes or group facilities at least two counties away, according to January data provided by the Department of Human Services.

Long-distance placements make it more difficult for youths in foster care to see their siblings and hinder parents who are working to reunite with their children. Caseworkers responsible for up to 17 children spend hours, sometimes an entire workday, driving across the state to check on a single child. Foster families, especially in rural communities, face more time in the car driving children to and from appointments with medical or behavioral health specialists.

In some counties, children in need of foster care outpace families willing to take them in, forcing child welfare workers to seek help elsewhere. In Beckham County, 37 children were in need of safe housing, according to the January data. Only 26 beds were available.

In Tulsa County, there were 47 more children in need of temporary housing than available placements, the data showed.

Even if a space is available nearby, state-approved families are not obligated to accept children. Teenagers, siblings and youth with disabilities or severe trauma are the hardest to house, said Sherry Skinner, director of business operations for Child Welfare Services.

Child welfare worker Kaitlin Davis sometimes drives as much as nine hours round-trip to visit one of the foster children on her case list.
Hannah France
Oklahoma Public Media Exchange (OPMX)
Child welfare worker Kaitlin Davis sometimes drives as much as nine hours round-trip to visit one of the foster children on her case list.

Skinner said the number of children in foster care is the state’s lowest on record. But the need for foster homes is as dire as ever.

“We’re not at the same crisis level we were when we had 14,000 kids,” Skinner said. “But clearly it’s not perfect or we wouldn’t have separated siblings or kids placed out of county.”

Sherri Wing Marsico oversees 70 volunteers who acted as advocates for children from Cleveland, McClain and Garvin Counties placed in foster care. The Court Appointed Special Advocates are paired with a child or siblings and required to visit them in person at least once per month.

A state map hangs on the wall in Marisco’s office with push pins noting where each of the 134 children was placed. More than half were placed outside of the three-county region they’re from and where the volunteers still live.

One red pin is on the eastern border near the Arkansas state line, three hours from Marisco’s Norman office. Another is two hours north, near Ponca City. Small clusters are in Lawton and Tulsa. Two and a half hours southeast is another pin in a small town near Durant.

Last year, Marisco’s volunteers drove more than 31,000 miles to visit children across the state.

Challenges Abound for Foster Parents

Public defender Kelley Feldhake oversees all child welfare cases in Tulsa. She’s also a foster mom.

Feldhake took in a 17-year-old client who was living in a Tulsa group home. After two months, the teenager moved to a group home in Lawton where she could receive regular counseling and other support.

It was the first time the girl had been three hours from home and from her best friend, Jackson, Feldhake said.

“She has just not been the same since moving to Lawton and not getting to see Jackson,” Feldhake said. “She does not have a relationship with her parents and he was her stability factor. When she was here, I think there was something in her head that was like, ‘I can get him if I need to,’ but that was gone.”

Two months later, the teenager ran away from the facility, hopped a Greyhound bus to Tulsa and went straight to Jackson’s house.

Before Feldhake took in two Tulsa brothers in May, state workers struggled to find them a home. Child welfare workers asked a former foster family in Hulbert to take them and the 5- and 12-year-old were moved to a farm more than an hour and a half away from their mother.

“As soon as these kids are placed far away where visitation is decreased or is non-existent, the parents’ progress takes a nosedive,” Feldhake said. “The parents need to see their kids and be reminded, ‘this is why I’m working so hard for this.’ And the kids definitely are more traumatized when they cannot maintain that bond. That contact with their parents is healing for these kids.”

The boys’ case worker offered to drive their mother to Hulbert to see them but she refused. In her mind, this was the person who had taken her kids from her and she didn’t want to spend three hours in a car with them, Feldhake said. Their mother refused the offers and said she would find her own transportation. But she never did. Her rights were terminated.

The 5-year-old had a severe speech impediment but there were no services near Hulbert to help him, Feldhake said. When the brothers came to live with her, Feldhake said she couldn’t understand him and had to ask his brother to translate.

Foster Family Turnover is High

New foster families are needed in every county, Skinner said. But even more important than recruiting new families is supporting and retaining those who are already approved.

Extensive background checks, home inspections and parenting classes are part of the months-long process the state Department of Human Services requires before families are approved to take in children.

Within a year of being approved, nearly 40% of Oklahoma’s foster families close their homes to children in need of care. Only 8% of families are still caring for foster kids, or willing to do so, after five years.

Some families close their homes because they had children of their own or adopted a child they were fostering, Skinner said. For an increasing number of families, caring for a child who was taken from their home was harder than they expected, prompting families to reconsider, she said.

Programs supporting parents at risk of losing their children are shrinking the population of youth in foster care, Skinner said. But those programs support the department’s easier cases, leaving foster families to care for children with the highest needs.

“It’s like parenting on steroids,” Feldhake said. “It’s absolutely difficult and hard.”

The imbalance of foster families willing or able to care for the state’s most vulnerable children means keeping youths in their communities is becoming more arduous.

For Davis, who has two young children of her own, that means missing more dinners and bedtime stories. But Davis said she’s willing to make the sacrifices needed to ensure the safety of all of the children who rely on her, not just her own.

“I spend a lot of time and focus on this job,” Davis said. “I have a 3- and 8-year-old who would love it if I quit my job a long time ago. But you don’t do this job for the money and I’m all in.”

Ed. Notes: Go here to learn about becoming a foster parent.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.
Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.