Oklahoma Department of Human Services, DHS, reforms under Pinnacle Plan, focus on foster families

TULSA - After several tumultuous years, big changes are underway at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

2NEWS tagged along with a foster care worker to see the progress first hand.
For a Tulsa County DHS worker, the day begins with roll call at the Laura Dester Children's Shelter, where children up to 18-years-old stay until DHS can find them a home.

For more information on the Dester shelter go to http://bit.ly/lauradester

"If we can get them into a home we think will be a great place for them to go, until they go home, that's our goal," said foster care worker Brooke Demers.

It's then time to check on the status of every child in Tulsa County in need of a home. And it's no easy task.

"We start digging through all of our resources, seeing who would be appropriate, a good match, a better placement," Demers said.

Once a child is dropped off at the shelter, foster care workers like Brooke reach out to family members first. If that's not an option, the hunt for a foster family is on.

"We still need more. That's why we have this meeting every morning, going over the shelter roster, because there's still that many children in care in a shelter that don't have anywhere to go," Demers said.

But workers must make sure they go to the right home.

Over the past decade, the agency reports 129 children died while in state care. That, and several other high profile cases of child abuse led lawmakers to call for change. DHS plans a complete overhaul of its system over the next five years called the Pinnacle Plan.

READ more about the Pinnacle Plan, an improvement plan for child welfare services at http://bit.ly/pinnplan

"It's a huge organization so I know it's going to take time to overhaul the whole thing, but we're making great strides," Demers said.

Another main focus of the agency is recruiting 2,000 more foster families in the first year and getting young children out of the shelter.  Children under two-years-old must now get placed immediately.

Even though Brooke still has stacks and stacks of cases, she has fewer cases since the Pinnacle Plan took effect, thanks in part to DHS hiring more workers.

"We're trying to keep our casework down, so we can focus more one on one with each case, nothing slips through the cracks," Demers said.

After a stop at the office, Brooke hit the road to check in on foster families.

She stopped by Kimberly Jeffress's home in Bixby. Jeffress is adopting a baby boy. He's the fourth child she has fostered in her home.

"He's just family. He's my child. I mean I've known him almost his entire life. We only missed the first couple of weeks," Jeffress said.

She says it's important to love foster children as much as your own.

"No matter what the situation, no matter the race, no matter the age, they need what every kid needs. They need a stable home life, with a family surrounding them to be supportive and loving and to just take care of them," Jeffress said.

Kimberly says she's seen positive changes at DHS, like more staffing, resources and better communication.

"That was probably our single biggest complaint, and we're not really having that problem anymore. So it's changed a lot of things for the better I think," she said.

Kimberly often thinks about what life could have been like for her foster baby, soon to be her legal son, if they hadn't welcomed him into their home.
"He's been with our family his whole life, and none of us can imagine him not being with us," Jeffers said.

This July marks one year since the Pinnacle Plan kicked off. DHS workers estimate they're about half way to their goal of recruiting 2,000 more foster families. They also hope to have 500 new caseworkers trained by then.

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