Laura Dester Children’s Center. DYLAN GOFORTH

After ongoing problems ranging from under-trained staff to abuse, the Department of Human Services says it plans to privatize the state’s last emergency shelter for children in the state’s child welfare system, turning it into a treatment center for kids with intellectual disabilities.

On Monday DHS announced it will “cease using the Laura Dester Children’s Center in Tulsa as a shelter for abused and neglected children” in September, and transition the facility into a “treatment center for children with co-occurring intellectual disabilities, mental illness and extreme behavior issues.”

Records show the facility has been plagued with problems in the last year. Inspection records indicate ongoing issues with cleanliness, record keeping and a lack of staff training. Police are regularly called to respond to the shelter for incidents ranging from runaway children to assault, according to call logs.

In March, a group of monitors overseeing Oklahoma’s child welfare system called for all children to be removed from Laura Dester, citing high rates of child abuse at the facility. DHS has confirmed seven cases of child abuse at the shelter in the past year, according to the monitors.

On April 10, DHS issued a request for proposals to find a private operator to take over Laura Dester.

The plan? DHS wants to turn the shelter into a 24-bed institutional care facility for children with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems, according to bid solicitation documents. The goal of the program would be to “provide treatment programs designed to transition these children into lower levels of care,’ according to DHS records.

The state hopes to award a contract by June 1.

Although the state has long tried to move away from putting children in institutionalized settings, there has been nowhere to put some of the children now being housed as Laura Dester, said Annette Jacobi, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, an oversight agency for the state’s child welfare system.

“We have a population that we don’t have an appropriate place for at the moment and we have to figure something out,” Jacobi said. “Is it ideal? I think a lot of people are going to argue ‘no.’”

However, there are no easy solutions to the problem, Jacobi said.

Disability advocate Wanda Felty has concerns that turning Laura Dester into an institutional setting for disabled children would not be the best solution. Felty said she could support the move if the new facility provides short-term therapy with the goal of eventually moving kids into more family-like homes. Much of that will be determined by who the operator of the new facility is, Felty said.

Oklahoma is supposed to eliminiate the use of shelters like Laura Dester as part of the Pinnacle Plan, an outline the state is following to improve its child welfare system.

“I have concerns that the model we are trying to create is not the best practice,” Felty said. “It’s just changing the name of Laura Dester to meet the standards of the Pinnacle Plan.”

Lack of staff training, high number of police calls at shelter
Laura Dester already serves some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

The shelter is meant to be a place where kids stay for a short period of time until DHS can find a better, more permanent placement. However, Laura Dester has come to house children with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems that Oklahoma has nowhere else to place.

The state has made efforts to curb its use of the facility. Sheree Powell, a spokeswoman for DHS, said in a media release Monday that DHS has not placed “a child or youth” in Laura Dester since March 8.

Staff from OCCY sent an email to the Oklahoma Juvenile Authority in December 2017, citing concerns about children with “medium to severe disabilities” being housed at Laura Dester for extended stays. OCCY conducts unannounced visits at the shelter at least twice a year.

During one visit in November 2016, an OCCY inspector expressed concerns that Laura Dester staff were not receiving any training to deal with the special needs children living there.

“….one resident walked around the dayroom on his toes yelling at random and another resident sat in a chair staring at the television with a suitcase on his lap, but according to staff would become aggressive if not given exactly what he wanted,” the inspector said in an email after the visit. “OCCY believe that the staff supervising the special needs residents should receive specialized training in their care and supervision.”

DHS has since made a lot of progress in providing more trained staff at Laura Dester, DHS said in response to The Frontier’s questions.
The complex needs of the children placed at LDCC required not only a robust amount of staff, but staff who were skilled with working with children with several specialized needs. This made hiring and maintaining staff very difficult. Due to our aggressive hiring efforts, Laura Dester now has staff ratios that are not less than 1 staff for every 3 children, and 1 staff for every two children on many days. Some of the staff hired are specifically trained to care for people with developmental disabilities. The staff have also been provided additional training for managing aggressive behaviors.

If a private operator takes over Laura Dester, OCCY would no longer be able to conduct regular inspections at the facility. State law only gives OCCY the power to inspect privately-operated children’s homes if there is a complaint about a facility.

“As an oversight agency, we would prefer to have access,” said Mark James, assistant director of OCCY.

Tulsa police responded to Laura Dester more than 300 times between February 2017 and March 2018.

Call logs show Tulsa police have responded to dozens of calls for runaways and assaults in progress from the facility in the past year. In February, a stabbing was reported at the shelter.

Police would not release more detailed information about the calls for service to Laura Dester because the incidents involve juveniles.

In response to The Frontier’s questions, DHS said there have not been more calls than usual at Laura Dester.
“Laura Dester is not a locked-down facility so we cannot physically restrain youth 12 and older from running away as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others,” DHS said in a written response. “Our policy is to notify law enforcement immediately when a youth leaves campus. The children and youth currently at LDCC have very challenging behaviors which have resulted in assaults on staff (and on law enforcement) and some youth have used running away as a means to express their desire to not follow the rules at the facility.”

In October, inspectors from the Oklahoma Juvenile Authority found “concerns of hygiene and human waste being present in several resident rooms” at Laura Dester, according to an inspection report.

OJA inspectors found feces smeared on a toilet in one bathroom, and a soiled diaper and a moldy apple in resident rooms, according to the report. Resident and personnel records were incomplete, according the report. Several shelter workers had incomplete files and some lacked complete fingerprinting results. Some shelter workers were from a temp agency. DHS said temp agency workers receive the same training as permanent shelter employees.

DHS took issue with some of OJA’s inspection of Laura Dester.

“Much of OJA’s report on this was not accurate and was based anecdotal information,” DHS said. “Issues related to cleanliness were most likely attributed to property destruction caused by older youth who required a high level of care that LDCC was not designed for. Those youth have since been moved from LDCC and placed in treatment facilities and property repairs have been made.”

Nowhere for kids to go
Laura Dester was originally slated to close in 2015 as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit called the Pinnacle Plan. In 2008 children’s’ advocates sued to force reforms in Oklahoma’s child welfare system. Failure to comply with the terms of the settlement could trigger a federal takeover of the state’s child welfare system.

DHS has not been able to close the shelter because it has failed to develop enough appropriate placements for children with severe behavioral problems or disabilities, said Marsha Robinson Lowry, the lead attorney in the lawsuit that resulted in the Pinnacle Plan.

“One of the problems is the failure to develop specialized placement with the kids who are developmentally developmentally delayed or have serious behavior problem,” she said.

Oklahoma has a shortage of group home beds. Provider rates are low and several group home operators have canceled contracts with the state in the past year.

“It certainly has become a placement of last resort,” Lowry said. “It is not appropriate for these kids. The department cannot run a good shelter with this many kids in it it.”

DHS steps up training, supervision at shelter
In response to child welfare monitors concerns about Laura Dester, DHS said in a report issued March 15 that it has invested more than $2 million at Laura Dester during the 2018 fiscal year to improve conditions at the shelter.

The state has placed child welfare specialists in each residential cottage at the shelter, increased monitoring and stepped up staff training, according to the report.

To help provide more staffing at Laura Dester, DHS has asked for volunteers from other parts to the agency to work temporarily at the shelter, sometimes working overtime.

“To fill the worker pool at Laura Dester, an agencywide announcement was sent asking for individuals willing to work on a temporary basis at LDCC in addition to their regularly assigned duties,” DHS said in its March 15 report.

The response from DHS staff has so far been positive, the agency said.

DHS is also making an effort to recruit more foster families willing to take special needs children and is working to secure more funding and open more privately operated group homes.

“….Laura Dester became and remains the only placement option for a small segment of children in DHS custody who have profoundly challenging physical and behavioral challenges, cognitive disabilities, or emotional circumstances,” DHS wrote in the report.

“It also has become the option of last resort for another small sub-set of foster children in need of alternative arrangements due to the failure of their previous placement.”