Oklahoma’s only secure-care facility for youth in the justice system is in the middle of a months-long staffing shortage, running a 42% vacancy rate for front-line staff and paying growing overtime costs. 

Darryl Fields, superintendent of the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center in Tecumseh, said in early March staff averaged about eight hours of overtime a week. Administrators say staff are frequently working 12-hour shifts, and though they try to avoid them, 16-hour shifts are sometimes necessary. Forty-eight out of 115 front-line positions are currently open, the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs recently told The Frontier.

The Office of Juvenile Affairs has paid more than $1.1 million in overtime costs since 2021, according to agency data. In the first few months of 2023, the agency has paid close to double what it did in overtime at the beginning of 2022. 

“It does drain our staffing, just morale, because of the fact that this is a hard job,” Fields said. “I would never recommend anybody work over eight hours in this environment because you’re managing a whole lot.” 

The staffing shortage is part of a nationwide shortfall of people to fill direct care roles in human services and corrections where jobs frequently have low wages for physically and emotionally demanding work. Staffing levels have been an issue at the Tecumseh facility for years, but have become more challenging in the last few months.

Direct care staff require 40 hours of training, so other agency staff haven’t been pulled in to cover shifts, said Office of Juvenile Affairs Director Rachel Holt. Direct care staff are tasked with managing the youth in their unit 24/7, running group times, enforcing safety and security measures, walking units to school, filing paperwork and mentoring kids. 

The 144-bed facility is home to about 64 male residents. The Office of Juvenile Affairs has 432 youth in custody throughout its system, according to a report given to the OJA board in March. The agency also contracts with 11 group homes and 11 detention centers across the state. The number of kids in state custody has been declining as early interventions or community-based programs increase, Holt said. 

Staffing shortages at human services jobs or in correctional facilities mean existing staff are spread thin, morale can dip for staff and kids, facilities can struggle to provide programming and education, and there is less flexibility to move staff or residents around as needed, said Annette Jacobi, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, which provides oversight to facilities that house kids in the state.

“In almost all human services, we’ve had staffing issues,” Jacobi said. “I’ve heard many directors say it’s really hard to attract people to these really challenging positions when pay is so low and someone can go do retail or something that is not as stressful and make as much money.” 

The Central Oklahoma Juvenile Facility has several units at its newly remodeled campus. The Office of Juvenile Affairs is facing a shortage of direct care staff. Provided

The state lacks a pipeline for people interested in behavioral health or corrections work, Jacobi said, and state agencies like the Department of Corrections, the Department of Human Services and the Office of Juvenile Affairs are competing for the same individuals. COVID has continued to impact staffing levels, as well.

The shelters, detention centers and group homes the state contracts with are also facing staff shortages, Holt said. The starting salary for direct care staff at the Tecumseh facility is around $35,000 per year.

Staffing shortages can be exacerbated by other existing problems, like the lack of treatment beds for youth in a mental health crisis. Staff sometimes have to spend days with kids at emergency rooms before they are sent back to their original facilities, Holt told lawmakers in February.

While there are safety concerns for staff and residents when additional people aren’t available to respond to an issue, Holt said there hasn’t been a crisis where the facility has had to turn away kids or had an incident because of low staffing. States like Texas have had to lock kids down in their rooms because of low staff levels, but Holt said she doesn’t believe that will happen in Oklahoma. 

Oversight specialists have done visits at the facility in the last year and haven’t reported any serious issues because of a lack of staff to top supervision administrators, Jacobi said. 

“We are not there nor will we ever be there,” Holt said. “Our staff is just committed to making those ratios work and working long hours.” 

The agency did an across-the-board pay raise in November 2021 and has tried referral and recruitment bonuses. The Tecumseh facility has also undergone millions of dollars in renovations on its 40-plus acres over the last few years, which administrators say is part of the plan to provide kids with more impactful experiences and can also draw new staff. Mental health assistance programs are being promoted to existing staff, and new employee trainings are happening more frequently to shorten the onboarding process

The agency is waiting to do more financial incentives until lawmakers approve House Bill 1842, which gives broad authority to the OJA director to create financial incentives. Holt didn’t ask lawmakers for additional funding this year because the agency’s budget should have room to hire new staff with current funds if overtime payments decrease.

Oklahoma lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to increase pay for Department of Corrections employees and disability service providers in hopes of alleviating staff shortages in those industries. Rep. Dell Kerbs, author of House Bill 1842, said lawmakers will keep watch on OJA’s staffing issues and would be open if the agency needed additional funds.

Administrators aren’t sure yet what incentives they’ll offer to lure more staff to the agency beyond pay raises. While pay raises can be effective in retaining staff, they don’t always alleviate recruitment issues. Employees have asked for things like gas cards for good attendance.

“You have seen pay raises for a lot of these types of jobs,” Jacobi said. “But you just don’t see the people.”