Many Oklahoma families struggle to access court-ordered services they need to regain custody of their kids from the state’s child welfare system, a new report by a state task force found. 

The report, published last week, found barriers like transportation, a lack of providers in rural areas and long waitlists make it difficult for biological parents to meet court requirements in a timely way. Child welfare case workers and foster families are underpaid and overworked, the report also found. These factors contribute to children being bounced from one caseworker or foster family to another. 

Oklahoma has spent most of the past decade attempting to reforming its troubled foster care system as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit. The state has made sustained progress in nearly every area, including increased oversight of providers and discontinued use of shelters to house the youngest kids in the state, according to recent reports from outside child welfare monitors.

But the state is still struggling to help kids get out of state custody quickly. Additional funding and more staff could help, but those needs will compete against a heavy push from some Republican lawmakers for tax cuts, education funding and economic development during the next legislative session. 

“This won’t be cheap,” said Joe Dorman, director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. “But the return on the investment will be tremendous.” 

Gov. Kevin Stitt formed the Child Welfare Task Force in January to study how to reduce the time kids spend in state custody and what supports families need to avoid state-sanctioned removal from parents. 

Programs that provide transportation, put social workers in schools and train parent mentors need to be expanded, the report found. Lawmakers partially funded a Family Representation and Advocacy Program this year, but roughly another $15 million is needed to take the program statewide.

Many foster families said the state doesn’t give them sufficient resources. Stress from case delays leads many to consider quitting, the report found. The report recommended the state help foster parents take respite breaks, boost funding for childcare and mental health professionals, increase stipends for case workers and foster families and expand Medicaid eligibility to families involved in the child welfare system.

Access to services that disrupt poverty and treat substance use are also key to keeping families out of the child welfare system, the report found. Statewide, nearly 70% of child welfare removals included substance abuse as a contributing factor.

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The state hasn’t had a wait list for residential substance use treatment for five years, said Bonnie Campo, director of communications for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Use Services. But mothers may be hesitant to reach out for services if they fear they’ll lose custody of their kids, face criminal charges or judgment from health care providers. 

Some women have been charged with felony child neglect in recent years even if their child was born healthy or child welfare workers didn’t find evidence of abuse or neglect, The Frontier previously reported.  

“We cannot adequately care for patients who are afraid to seek care or be truthful with their physicians,” Angela Hawkins, a local doctor and chair of the Oklahoma Section of American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told lawmakers during an interim study last month.

State lawmakers will consider the task force recommendations during the 2024 legislative session. Efforts to expand social services have been mixed in recent years. The Department of Human Services has received millions to help end the state’s waiting list for disability services,  and several capital projects are in the works to expand access to mental health care. But many state officials say that money is just helping Oklahoma catch up after years of budget cuts.

Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, served on the task force and said that although Stitt created the task force, the governor has also recently called for tax cuts and smaller government. But the recommendations are needed, Lawson said, even if it means increasing appropriations. 

“Being in the fiscal position that we’re in with the surplus that we have … This is the best investment we can make,” Lawson said. 

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, is still reviewing the report, his office said, but is “committed and willing to do what is necessary to improve essential services to children in Oklahoma.” 

The Department of Human Services has requested a $30 million budget increase for next year to pay for higher child care reimbursement rates. Lawmakers get the final say on what funding the department will receive for worker raises or program expenses.

“Our children and families are our future, and it is the responsibility of every Oklahoman to do what is necessary to see our community thrive and flourish,” the report said.

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