Cutting the ribbon for the first cottage to open at the Laura Dester Children’s Center residential treatment program are (L-R) Millie Carpenter, interim Child Welfare Services Director; Beth Scrutchins, Developmental Disabilities Services Director; Cody Inman, Special Assistant to DHS Director; DHS Director Ed Lake; Sarah Stitt, First Lady-elect; Dr. Hugh Sage, Director of Liberty of Oklahoma; Sue Nayda, Liberty Healthcare Corporation; Tom Bates, interim Commissioner of Health; Nellie Kelly, Executive Director Tulsa Protection Coalition.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) and Liberty of Oklahoma announced the re-opening of the Laura Dester Children’s Center as a short-term residential treatment program for children and youth with intellectual disabilities and severe emotional disturbances in the custody of the DHS. Speakers at the press conference included First Lady-elect Sarah Stitt, DHS Director Ed Lake, and Hugh Sage, Director of Liberty of Oklahoma.
Since the closure of the state-operated emergency children’s shelters, including the Laura Dester Children’s Center, DHS encountered a lack of appropriate treatment services in Oklahoma for children with intellectual disabilities and co-occurring mental health disorders and behavioral challenges. Half of the children who ended up at Laura Dester were children with those diagnoses and challenges, and several young people had to be sent out of state for a level of treatment that simply did not exist in Oklahoma.
“I am excited that our community has decided to fill the gaps that exist in our current mental health system,” said First Lady-elect Sarah Stitt. “I am also excited to see how we will change the lives of these children.”
This treatment program will serve up to 24 children and youth in three cottages, the first of which is expected to open shortly after the first of 2019, and the other two cottages by mid-March. The program will serve young people from across the state who have co-occurring diagnosis and are in the custody of DHS due to abuse or neglect. This will not be a home for children, but will provide short-term treatment, stabilization, and follow-along services, with an average expected length of stay of about six months.
“Our goal for the children who will receive treatment here is to help them get back home with their parents or in another family setting as quickly as possible,” said DHS Director Ed Lake. “We believe that every child deserves a family. We are also excited about the opportunity to repurpose this beautiful campus in a way that still meets its original purpose–to provide a safe haven for our state’s the most vulnerable children.”
About 30-50 percent of children and youth with intellectual disabilities also have co-occurring mental health disorders and challenging behaviors, and, for children in state custody, there is a significant need to stabilize their mental health and intervene as quickly as possible.
“We have the opportunity to serve children here and intervene earlier,” said Dr. Hugh Sage, Director of Liberty of Oklahoma. “We hope to improve the quality of lives for these kids.”

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