The number of overdue child welfare complaint investigations in Oklahoma soared by more than 45 percent in October â€” with 85 percent of the increase attributed to Oklahoma County.
â€œI'm very concerned about this,â€ said Marq Youngblood, chief operating officer for the Department of Human Services. â€œI will certainly be involved in turning this around.â€
Records show that in October there were 542 referrals in which state child welfare workers failed to meet a 60-day agency deadline for completing and documenting their initial investigations into child abuse and neglect complaints.
That's an increase of 170 over the 372 investigations that were overdue the previous month.
Documents show 242 of October's overdue investigations were in a region consisting of Oklahoma and Canadian counties.
Youngblood said a recent high turnover rate is mostly to blame for the problem in Oklahoma County, but corrective disciplinary actions and extended medical leave for some employees also have contributed.
Oklahoma County recently experienced a major restructuring that included a consolidation of offices and change in leadership, he said.
Some child welfare workers left the agency and that put additional stresses on other workers, some of whom also quit.
â€œA number of changes have happened in this county,â€ Youngblood said. â€œI am in no way blaming any of these changes for this outcome.â€
There are 68 authorized child protective services positions in Oklahoma County and 51 of those positions are filled, said Beth Scott, an agency
Scott said the agency is in the process of finalizing the hiring of six workers and the other 11 positions should be filled within 90 days.
When workers are on leave or out because of disciplinary actions, the agency can use paid overtime or shift workers from other units or counties to pick up the slack, she said.
â€œWhat we're trying to do now is get ahead of the staffing issue,â€ Youngblood said.
It is difficult to gauge the impact DHS staffing problems may be having on the state's ability to protect the safety of children in homes where abuse and neglect have been reported.
Youngblood said when he has delved into particular cases, he has seen that child welfare workers have been in the homes and taken action when necessary to protect children, but just haven't taken the time yet to document the work they have done. In those cases, the risk has not really increased, he said.
DHS Director Howard Hendrick said the 242 child welfare complaint investigations that are overdue in Oklahoma and Canadian counties represent a backlog of about two weeks.
When complaints are called into the hot line, they are either screened out or referred to a worker for assessment and investigation based on the severity of the complaint.
Workers are required to immediately investigate Priority I complaints that indicate a child is in imminent danger.
Workers are given two to 15 days to initiate investigations in Priority II cases in which the screener believes the child is not in imminent danger, but it is likely the child will not be safe in the future without intervention and safety measures.
Statistics presented to the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services on Thursday reveal a huge discrepancy between regions of the state in the percentages of complaints that were screened out versus the number referred for investigation.
For example, only 35 of the 306 complaints (11.4 percent) received in the northwestern region of Oklahoma were screened out and the others were assigned for assessment and investigation.
But in the Oklahoma and Canadian counties region, 1,473 of the 2,061 complaints (71.5 percent) were screened out and only 588 were referred for
Youngblood said all the complaints come in on the same hot line and are screened by the same people using the same criteria, so there is no indication that Oklahoma County complaints are being inappropriately screened out because of workload
â€œWe feel like we have a good pool of people in Oklahoma County who will let us know if they suspect abuse or neglect,â€ he said. â€œWe're hoping that's true across the state, but in some pockets it's not true.â€
Youngblood said it is possible more duplicate calls are received in Oklahoma County, since it is more populous. Duplicate calls are screened out, along with calls that don't meet the criteria for classification as abuse or neglect.
DHS received 5,201 child abuse or neglect complaints in October. Records show 2,777 of those were screened out and 2,424 were referred for assessment or investigation.