By Jeffrey Smith, The News On 6
TULSA, OK -- An independent audit earlier this year blasted the Oklahoma Department of Human Services for taking too many kids from their homes and keeping them too long. DHS reports new reforms are already making a difference for children in need.
Oklahoma children are removed from their homes twice as much as the national average. In the Tulsa area, almost half of those kids are returned within a week.
One DHS supervisor says those revolving door days are behind them.
Bill Waller says times are changing at the Laura Dester Shelter.
"We had six kids here at one time. Now there's none. Same here, we had four, five, children here, now there's zero. So we're just tickled," said Bill Waller, shelter supervisor.
Under a new policy called Joint Response, DHS case workers must talk to police before a child goes to a shelter. A removal is recommended only if the child is in danger. Juvenile Judge Doris Fransein supports the reform.
"So there wasn't a joint investigation. DHS did not immediately get involved in the cases. For relatives, it took a long time to locate relatives. It took a long time to get them approved, and so the kids sat in a shelter," said Judge Doris Fransein, Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau.
When Joint Response began in June, 12 Tulsa kids were diverted from the Laura Dester Shelter and into the arms of a relative, friend, guardian or coach.
The number of shelter diversions doubled in July and last month, 45 kids did not go to a shelter because DHS placed them in a safe and familiar environment.
"I've been here at the shelter for eight years. Last week was the lowest population I've ever seen, at 15 children," said Bill Waller, shelter supervisor.
So why did DHS allow police to remove kids from their homes so readily before this policy?
"I think it was the easiest thing to do, frankly. I think it was easy. I think the budget crunch created issues that people were no longer on call," said Judge Doris Fransein, Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau.
The advocacy group representing 10,000 plaintiffs in a suit against DHS says "any improvements" "are to be welcomed." But say a "system that has been deteriorating for more than 10 years cannot be fixed in just a few months."
"You go from maybe an average of 25, to 30, kids here. To, well let's see, the last few weeks here we're averaging four to five," said Bill Waller, shelter supervisor.
Waller says the shelter's revolving door days are over and empty beds at the shelter are proof.
The audit recommended DHS close down the Laura Dester Shelter and instead find more emergency foster homes. Judge Fransein says the unfortunate reality is there will always be a need for shelters and Tulsa's new $10 million shelter could open its doors by next March.