The Oklahoma Health Department is taking steps to close child guidance centers in 17 counties as a cost-saving measure, state officials confirmed Monday.
There are child guidance centers in 33 counties, but only 16 will remain open after the reorganization is complete, said Debra Andersen, chief of child guidance services for the Health Department. Eighteen jobs are being eliminated.
Professional staff at child guidance centers work closely with child care centers, Head Start programs and schools so that children with speech, hearing, behavioral and developmental problems can be diagnosed early and treated before the problems grow, Andersen said. More than 7,000 individuals were served through the program last year.
Staff members don’t diagnose autism, but they are often one of first resources parents and teachers of autistic children turn to for help and they make referrals to places where help can be obtained, one employee told The Oklahoman
Andersen said the decision to close 17 county child guidance centers is painful because they perform an important service.
"We just had to look at the resources that we have available and make some really tough decisions,” Andersen said. "We really stressed to staff that this was a business decision the agency needed to make.
"We’re incredibly sensitive to families that are being served, and we want to be sure that we allow ample time for transition for any families that are currently receiving services.”
Child guidance staff members include audiologists, child development specialists, psychological clinicians, social workers and speech language pathologists, all of whom hold graduate degrees.
The current staff of 63 child guidance employees will drop to 45 employees through the reorganization, Andersen said. All of the social worker positions are being eliminated, as well as some other jobs.
The agency has set a July 1 target date for completion of the reorganization, which is expected to save between $1 million and $1.5 million a year, she said.
As part of the staff reduction process, guidance center employees have been asked to express their interest in a voluntary buyout that would include a $5,000 payment, the equivalent of 18 months insurance payments, their next longevity check and payment for accumulated leave, Andersen said.