The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on Oklahoma’s child welfare system.
The pandemic initially diverted the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ attention from improvements needed to help kids in foster care with multiple needs, like health and behavioral issues. There was a need for the agency to suddenly shift social workers to telework and scale back in-person visits.
Most DHS cases start with complaints of neglect, and Director of Child Welfare Dr. Deborah Shropshire said last week during a session of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy's Fall Forum the pandemic led to an uptick in calls from families struggling to find basic resources.
"The worst thing that could happen is if our state allowed those children to float into the foster care system because we didn’t figure out how to strengthen and support their families upstream, and they wound up in foster care with that 43% reunification likelihood and they never went home," Shropshire said.
DHS is still trying to sort out how to maximize services while minimizing contact. The agency has seen a slight increase in foster home vacancy rates — the number of certified foster homes without any children placed there. Shropshire said she thinks that’s because of people needing to be in quarantine, but she’s seen foster parents act heroically as a result.
"We’ve had literally foster families who have gotten sick who have hunkered down. We’ve had families who have gotten sick enough that children needed to move and we knew those children were at least exposed, and other foster families stepped up and said, 'I’ll take those children, and I’ll quarantine with them,'" Shropshire said.
DHS is trying to embed more social workers in community spaces rather than having them centralized in state buildings, making it easier to meet with families, and trying to put more resources online.
In 2019, more than 8,600 Oklahoma kids were in foster care.