Foster care fallout: Closing doors, asking questions
Tulsa’s emergency children’s shelter is scheduled to close by the end of the year, increasing the urgency to find local foster families.
By the end of this year, Tulsa’s 5-year-old, $12.4 million emergency children’s shelter will go dark. Doors will be locked, staff will resign or be reassigned and the children who once slept here — some for months at a time — will be gone.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services houses children awaiting foster homes in two state-run shelters: Laura Dester in Tulsa and Pauline E. Mayer in Oklahoma City.
In 2014, between 53 and 99 children slept at the Laura Dester shelter each night, according to OKDHS.
Starting with the Oklahoma City shelter, both will close by Dec. 31 to keep in line with OKDHS’ Pinnacle Plan to improve the state’s child welfare system.
The purpose for closing the shelters is clear: Children are meant for families, not facilities. But many in the community worry about closing the shelters when a significant number of foster families are still needed.
“The timeline is a very aggressive timeline,” says Chris Campbell, executive director of 111Tulsa, an organization seeking to solve the foster family shortage for Tulsa County and the surrounding region. He estimates the Tulsa area alone needs a minimum of 50 more foster families.
“I want to see the (number) of children in shelters reduced, but I hope that’s done in a way that’s done really well.”
Katelynn Burns, communications coordinator for OKDHS, says the agency has been reducing the number of children admitted to the Oklahoma City shelter for months; no children have been admitted since July. This process has not started yet at Laura Dester, which is a larger facility that houses more children. From September through December, OKDHS hopes to find foster placements for the remaining children still at Laura Dester.
“We definitely do not have enough foster families,” Burns says. “We need more foster parents, period. We need people who are open-minded and will take teens, kids with developmental disabilities and sibling groups. Those are generally the groups that are hardest to place.”
Despite this urgent need, OKDHS is moving forward to close both state-run shelters.
“The timeline is subject to change, but it looks like we’re on track,” Burns says.
Children enter the foster care system when they are removed from their homes through no fault of their own, often as a result of neglect or abuse, and placed into state custody.
According to OKDHS, most children placed into foster care are reunited with their own parents within a year, but the potential for children to be traumatized during this process is extremely high.
The agency’s research shows that traumatic events can put children and youth at risk for learning difficulties, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, risk-taking behavior and psychiatric and health problems later in life.
Children enter foster care for diverse reasons but sources agree commonalities are poverty, substance abuse and untreated mental health conditions.
These problems, which are frequently generational, often go hand in hand, making a quick solution impossible.
Oklahoma also ranks No. 1 in the nation for female incarceration and No. 2 in incarceration overall. On the other side of these statistics are often children left with no parents to care for them.
The number of Oklahoma children in foster care increased 40 percent from 2011-14. At the end of the state fiscal year 2015, 10,764 children were in foster care.
Burns with OKDHS says the significant spike in children entering state custody was due to a state- and agency-wide fear factor that frequently resulted in the removal of children from their homes.
“There were a series of highly publicized child deaths that kind of put people in a foster care panic,” she says. “People were afraid to keep kids in families if they weren’t sure they were going to be OK.”
In the past few years, she says the agency’s focus has shifted to preserving families when it is safe for the child by contracting with private agencies to provide comprehensive home-based services to some families of children at risk for foster care.
For example, a child living in a filthy environment might previously have been removed from his home due to perceived neglect, Burns says. With the new approach, OKDHS might contract with private agencies to help teach his parents cleaning and organization skills that would allow the child to remain with his family.
Other in-home services might teach basic parenting skills such as cooking or appropriate child supervision. The approaches and results will vary with each situation, Burns says.
Now, OKDHS is collaborating with the state department of mental health to test a federally funded pilot program in southeast Oklahoma that builds on the approach’s success.
Despite its new working relationship with private agencies, Burns denies allegations from some in the foster care community that Oklahoma is moving toward total privatization of its child welfare system, a scenario in which private agencies assume full responsibility for what were formerly public functions.
In some states, such as Florida, privatization has led to better outcomes for children and families, greater accountability and increased efficiencies, according to the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a national organization dedicated to achieving a healthy society and strong communities for all.
However, other states have fared worse, notes the alliance. Private agencies in Nebraska
declared bankruptcy or withdrew their contracts altogether during the state’s transition to semi-privatized foster care.
While OKDHS is dipping its toe into the world of privatization, Burns emphasizes the agency will continue to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect by caregivers and will remove children from homes if and when appropriate.
“We can do as much as we can to prevent behavior, but we can’t always predict human behavior,” she says. “We are not going to leave a child in a situation that’s unsafe. That is not going to change just because we are providing intensive services.”
Across the local foster care community, the OKDHS timeline and strategy for closing its shelters draws widespread skepticism.
“It will be another disruption for the young people,” says Lupe Ortiz-Tovar, a Tulsan who spent 13 years in foster care in Arizona. She now advocates for former foster youth at the national level. “My hope is that Oklahoma is working to find positive placements, ideally foster homes. But we know that number is low.
“I fear that young people will be institutionalized or put into group homes. That may be a Band-Aid, but it’s not a forever remedy for young people.”
Burns with OKDHS confirms that group homes are one potential solution for children still awaiting foster homes after the state-run shelters close. The teens who live in these facilities often receive intensive, specialized services in a small group setting less rigid than a shelter.
From a logistical standpoint, questions remain about where children in crisis — especially after hours — will stay while OKDHS finds them emergency foster homes. (Previously, children could be taken to the Laura Dester shelter.)
Burns says private shelters like the one operated by Youth Services of Tulsa might serve as emergency shelters for youth needing foster placement. However, she says private shelters “are still going to be considered an absolute last resort.”
Tulsa Police Officer Leland Ashley says the closing of Laura Dester will likely require officers to spend more time with children in crisis while Child Protective Services workers find them an emergency foster placement — time that could be spent responding to other emergencies.
In some cases, this could mean children are waiting in an officer’s patrol car until an emergency foster home is found.
“If we are taking a child out of a home, we have a responsibility for that child until we deem the situation is appropriate,” Ashley says.
Ultimately, OKDHS has a math problem it needs help to solve: too many kids and too few foster families.
“The big thing is that we as a community need to only be content when there are an overflowing amount of options for caseworkers when placing kids in a home,” Campbell says.
Tulsan Clay Finck-Ward, a 23-year specialist in child welfare at the national level, sums up what many expect once the shelters close: “I think it’s going to be chaos for a little bit,” he says.
However, his experience tells him the system and young people quickly adjust to a new norm.
“The thing about this new norm is, we don’t know yet if it will be good or bad, or if it’s a norm we can live with,” he says. “We just don’t know what it will do to outcomes.”
The future of the facility
The relatively new, state-of-the-art Laura Dester shelter was built largely with state funds, leading many to question the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ plans for the facility once the shelter closes.
At press time, Katelynn Burns with OKDHS said the agency could not comment on its specific plans for the building, but she confirmed that OKDHS is working with a group of Tulsa stakeholders to help determine whether it can potentially be reused.
One of those stakeholders is Lynn Sossamon, director of the Tulsa County Child Protection Coalition, who says the group — which originated in 2003 and has been engaged with OKDHS since March in response to the closing — also includes representatives from 13 local agencies, two Tulsa city councilors and several contributors to the privately funded portions of the shelter.
Sossamon says the group presented OKDHS with a list of community concerns about the closing of Laura Dester and the children who will be impacted. It also developed a list of ideas for how the facility could be reused to serve the same population: kids in state custody.
Ideas for reuse include an assessment or evaluation center, a medical clinic, a residential facility for teen mothers and their children, and an after-school center for foster children. But OKDHS has the ultimate decision on the facility’s future use.
Foster parent Lyndsey Reyes suggests another meeting place is needed for visitation appointments with biological parents and foster children, who normally meet with caseworkers and foster parents in a sterile OKDHS office or a chaotic restaurant such as McDonald’s or Chik-Fil-A. Reyes says these places are not always conducive to observing parental engagement.
At this point, Sossamon says “the ball is in DHS’ court” to consider the options and announce its plans for Laura Dester.
“We are truly interested in meeting the needs of the children, more so than what the facility will be used for,” she says, speaking on behalf of the stakeholder group. “If the facility could be used to address the needs of these kids, I’m all for it.”
For more information on the Tulsa County Child Protection Coalition, visit www.protectioncoalition.org.
Keeping babies safe
Lack of communication from caseworkers — who often have significant caseloads — is a chief complaint among foster families. Many also decry the lengthy court process that can tie up reunification and adoptive cases, in particular, for years.
A privately funded pilot program, the Tulsa Safe Babies Court Team, launched in February to help address both issues over the next three years. The program, created by the national nonprofit ZERO TO THREE, focuses on children under age 3 who are in state custody. Tulsa is one of 14 SBCT sites across the country.
Abuse and neglect have been linked to serious developmental issues for infants and toddlers, according to ZERO TO THREE. These consequences can worsen in a foster care system with infrequent parental visitation, multiple placement changes and delays in finding a permanent home.
Sarah Beilke, community coordinator for the Tulsa team, says her role is to provide additional case management support and encourage community collaboration to serve the best interests of each child.
“It’s about helping caseworkers do their jobs more efficiently and effectively,” she says.
Beilke, who is the only Tulsa SBCT staff member, plans on taking up to 25 cases in the program’s first year.
For more information, visit www.zerotothree.org/maltreatment/safe-babies-court-team.
Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan
In light of multiple controversies involving OKDHS and a class-action lawsuit over foster care filed by a children’s advocacy group, in 2012 OKDHS developed the Pinnacle Plan, a five-year blueprint to improve Oklahoma’s child welfare services.
A Pinnacle Plan benchmark on Dec. 31, 2012 prevented children under age 2 from staying in shelters. Instead, these children are now placed immediately into the home of an emergency foster family. By June 30, 2014, emergency shelter placement was reserved only as a last resort for children age 13 and older, and limited to a 30 days (within a 12-month period) while determining the best placement for the child — whether that is back home, to a family member or to a traditional foster home. The next major benchmark is the closing of state-run shelters by Dec. 31, 2015.
Other Pinnacle Plan initiatives include expansion of resource homes, new caseload standards for caseworkers, consistent and timely investigations and reporting of child maltreatment in care and effective and streamlined staff hiring and training.
Visit www.okdhs.org for more information on the Pinnacle Plan.
A glimpse into the lives of three local foster families.
Lyndsey and Joey Reyes
More than a dozen trash bags fill the front porch of Lyndsey and Joey Reyes’ Broken Arrow home. It’s not trash day; these bags of clothing, shoes and other items have been dropped off for the couple’s nonprofit, James Mission.
The Reyes founded James Mission to meet the material needs of foster and adoptive families, as well as low-income families and others. It was born out of the couple’s own needs as new foster parents.
Children placed into emergency foster homes arrive on short notice and often with few personal belongings, the couple explains.
The ministry gets its name from the Scripture James 1:27 — “... to take care of widows and orphans ...” — that led them to open their home to foster children.
“I had the thought that I was 34, and I had done nothing with my life,” Joey says. “I asked God, ‘If we are really here for a purpose, grow us and start showing us that purpose.’”
In the past three years, the couple has cared for 13 foster children. Kids have stayed anywhere from one weekend to, in one difficult situation, 22 months.
In that case, the Reyes let the children’s biological mother visit their home while she worked toward reunification. There, Lyndsey mentored her on basic caregiving such as car seat safety and bathing the kids — skills she had never learned.
“I tried to create a good relationship with the mom so that there was trust on both ends to know that I’m not here to take her children away; I’m here to help her,” Lyndsey says.
Today the Reyes family includes Lyndsey’s three teenage sons from a previous marriage, the couple’s daughter who was adopted through foster care and a 2-year-old foster daughter they have had since infancy and are working to adopt. Other foster children cycle in and out.
The entire crew helps sort James Mission’s community donations in the family’s formal dining room and garage, where families can shop by appointment. But soon the growing nonprofit — which clothes an average of 50 children per week — will move into a Tulsa warehouse.
At the new location, the family hopes to expand its work and use its experience to provide support, tangible and otherwise, to foster families.
“Sometimes they just don’t know what to do,” Lyndsey says of foster parents. “So, I can help guide or direct them to other resources that are available to foster families or families in need, too.”
Before she became a foster mother, Shelley Cadamy’s life was full of gallery openings, happy hours and traveling. She calls herself a “serial volunteer” who balked when a friend told her she would make a great foster parent.
Cadamy was a single professional who didn’t yearn for children. But in her late 30s, she found herself searching for a greater purpose.
“I just felt like, ‘My God, is this all there is?’” she says.
Her desire to make a difference in the lives of foster children led Cadamy to begin fostering two sisters (ages 6 and 9) seven and a half years ago. Like all foster parents, Cadamy received extensive training before she could take children into her home. But unexpected challenges arose. Within 24 hours, the 6-year-old had to leave and enter therapeutic foster care for a year. Cadamy received additional training to become a therapeutic foster parent and brought the child home a little more than a year later.
But she still came to feel largely unprepared for the special needs of her foster daughters, who are now ages 13 and 16. Both have reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a serious condition in which young children do not establish healthy relationships with parents or caregivers.
The girls’ conditions are a result of neglect and abuse suffered at a young age, Cadamy says. Her youngest daughter has improved her violent outbursts, while her oldest daughter struggles with self-sabotage. Both exhibit manipulative behavior as a result of their survival instincts.
“When my kids cried as babies, they were either ignored or beaten, or both, or sometimes they were fed,” says Cadamy, who has had to check in both girls for in-patient psychiatric care at various times. “They didn’t develop a sense of cause and effect.”
Shortly after fostering the girls, Cadamy welcomed the girls’ brother, now 10 years old, who does not exhibit symptoms of RAD.
Although many foster parents before her threw in the towel with her children, Cadamy moved forward to adopt the entire sibling group in 2010.
“My kids are pretty phenomenal and resilient,” she says. “They have some perspective that a lot of 40-year-olds don’t have.
“I try to help them see their past as an opportunity to see what kind of people they want to be and to own their story rather than letting it own them.”
Despite the challenges her family has experienced the past seven years, she does not hesitate to say she would do it all over.
“I think it’s why I’m here,” she says. “I feel like I’m more useful in the world.”
Kenneth and Renee Navarro
During Marine veteran Kenneth Navarro’s three tours in Vietnam, he made sure no one in his platoon was injured. He, however, took a bullet to the knee.
His approach to foster care is much the same. At age 74, he has taken 33 foster children into his home.
“We have a 100 percent success rate,” he says. “We’ve never lost a child or sent one back.”
Kenneth and his wife, Renee, married 11 years ago. Each had four biological children who were mostly grown.
Three years into their marriage, Renee’s friend asked the Navarros to take her son into their home while she worked on some personal issues. The couple agreed and took the necessary classes to become a kinship foster placement.
After the boy went back to live with his mother, the couple thought, “Well, what now?” Renee recalls.
They prayed about it and became traditional foster parents. Their first placement was trial by fire: 18-month-old triplets. And when they left, the calls from OKDHS — and the kids — kept coming.
“I can’t say no to a child,” explains Kenneth, who is the children’s main caregiver in his retirement. Renee works full time at St. John Medical Center.
Over the past seven years, every foster child leaving the Navarros’ home has been reunified with his or her parents — an uncommon occurrence, according to Kenneth. In addition to caring for the children, Kenneth says he tries to help their parents — even providing them transportation to visitation or court hearings when needed.
“Taking care of the kids isn’t enough for me,” he says. “Every child who comes into the system needs to be back with their parents.”
Saying goodbye to children you’ve cared for is heartbreaking, the couple admits. But they do it anyway to help break what they call the “vicious cycle” of issues that keep generations in the foster care system.
For some of their foster children, reunification with family wasn’t possible. So, Kenneth and Renee recently adopted eight of their former foster kids, who range in age from 2-16.
At a time in their lives when most people are slowing down, the Navarros are as passionate as ever about their calling. They keep the family running with a structured routine, support from their church and friends, and a lot of prayer.
“When you put God first, God takes care of you,” Renee says.
Lupe Ortiz-Tovar was honored for her work with former foster youth by the White House in May. But she received an even more significant prize four months earlier.
In January, Ortiz-Tovar, who is a former foster child herself, was legally adopted at age 32.
Ortiz-Tovar and her sister entered Arizona’s foster care system as young children. They lived in numerous shelters, foster homes and group homes and were eventually separated. Both aged out of the foster care system.
Despite childhood trauma before entering foster care, Ortiz-Tovar graduated high school and earned a degree in psychology from Arizona State University. She began her career with a nonprofit that connects foster youth to peer mentors, who are former foster children themselves, and also traveled across the country facilitating conferences on independent living for foster youth.
“Having lived the experience of foster care, I have only ever wanted to create more learning opportunities for young people because I know that’s what made the difference in my life,” she says. “So, to be able to do that professionally is just a huge bonus.”
Ortiz-Tovar came to Tulsa in 2010 when she joined the National Resource Center for Youth Development at OU-Tulsa (now defunct). There, she focused on improving child welfare practices under Clay Finck-Ward, who became a mentor and close friend during their frequent work travel.
“We spent lots of time at the airport, lots of time stranded, sometimes without our belongings,” Ortiz-Tovar says. “You bond.”
In summer 2014, the two began working with JBS International Inc. on federal contracts that manage the auditing of foster care on a national level. On a personal level, Ortiz-Tovar grew closer to Finck-Ward and his family, including his husband, Bryan Finck-Ward.
At this point, Ortiz-Tovar was an accomplished young woman making a difference in the lives of other foster alumni. But something was missing. Something had always been missing.
“As a child in the beginning, I was really hopeful for a home,” she recalls. “When that didn’t happen, I thought it was just an unapproachable dream. I was going to be my own safety net because every time I thought I was with a family, I wasn’t good enough or something happened.”
All that changed on Father’s Day weekend 2014, when Ortiz-Tovar was invited to the Finck-Wards’ family brunch. At that gathering, Bryan announced his plans to legally adopt Clay’s children.
Then, Bryan and Clay announced they also wanted to adopt Ortiz-Tovar.
“That was the farthest thing from my mind,” she says, “and I lost it. Ugly mascara running down the face, face on the table, crying — all day.”
Before she agreed to legally join the family, Ortiz-Tovar called to receive the blessing of her biological sister with whom she had reconnected after high school.
“My sister said, ‘We’ve always had people leave our lives. We’ve never had people ask to stay.’”
And so, in May, when Ortiz-Tovar became one of 12 former foster youth to receive a “Champion of Change” award from the White House, the moment was even bigger than it might have been.
“I had parents in the audience,” she says, beaming. “I was proud and I knew that other people were proud. It was just a beautiful moment.”
Become a foster parent
To be a foster parent in Oklahoma, one must:
- Be at least 21.
- Have healthy relationships, whether married, single, separated or divorced.
- Be able to manage personal and household financial needs without relying on the foster care reimbursement.
- Fulfill the OKDHS policy on criminal background checks for all household members 13 and older. There must be no history of alleged or confirmed child abuse, neglect or sexual abuse.
- Have a working vehicle.
- Provide appropriate sleeping arrangements for each child placed.
- Be in good physical and mental health.
- Provide references.
- Complete required training in a timely manner.
- No smoking in the home or vehicle when the child is present.
- Comply with OKDHS rules on discipline.
- Be able to work as part of a team with social workers and biological parents.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, call the OKDHS Bridge Resource Support Center at 800-376-9729 or visit www.okbridgefamilies.com.