Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Fallin wants a thorough review of how the Oklahoma Department of Human Services screens complaints of child abuse and neglect.
Democratic opponent Jari Askins says she would issue an executive order creating a children's cabinet to establish spending priorities for improving the plight of Oklahoma children.
For years, Oklahoma has ranked among the worst states in the nation for its rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect.
Victims such as Kelsey Smith-Briggs and Aja Johnson have become examples for advocates of reform of a child welfare system that has failed to protect dozens of Oklahoma children.
DHS employees responded to multiple reports of child abuse involving Kelsey and Aja, but the two children ultimately were killed.
Report shows problems
A draft report published in June on the deaths or near-deaths of 82 Oklahoma children found DHS had received an average of five complaints per child in the time leading up to the tragedies.
Many of the complaints had been screened out as not meeting the criteria for investigation.
Treatment of children in Oklahoma's child welfare system has been described as "incomprehensible, unimaginable, outrageous and immoral" by a child welfare specialist retained by a national child advocacy group that is suing DHS in Tulsa federal court.
How to address the lawsuit and Oklahoma's child welfare problems will be among the most serious issues facing Oklahoma's next governor.
"We've got to figure out how to resolve the lawsuit," Askins said. "It's not a matter of getting out of court. It's a matter of doing the right things in the state so that there are no grounds for future lawsuits. ... These kinds of allegations are a black eye on the state, and we must reach the point where the black eye no longer exists."
Fallin agrees the state's focus regarding the lawsuit should be on "fixing our child welfare system and creating an environment where we aren't leading the nation in child abuse statistics."
"It's unfortunate that the state now has to spend money on lawyers and legal fees rather than on caseworkers and child services," Fallin said.
"But in the long run, it's not about winning or losing a lawsuit. It's about protecting our children, and that should be our main priority."
Askins thinks creating a children's cabinet and requiring the Legislature to focus on nothing but the budget every other year would allow lawmakers to look more closely at programs.
"A children's cabinet is an opportunity for the state to establish priorities and areas of focus and then make sure that everyone involved in children's programming is focused in the same direction," Askins said.
Askins said "I'm not sure," when asked whether a leadership change was needed at DHS.
"Right now, I would tell you I know that the Department of Human Services needs more resources placed in strategic programs," she said. "Until those resources are provided, I'm not sure it matters who is at the top because they are going to have difficulty."
Fallin responded, "Leadership begins first and foremost with the governor."
"I intend to be a governor who will not accept the status quo, not accept mediocre services and who will demand efficiency and accountability from our government agencies," the Republican candidate said.
Candidates open to privatizing
Askins and Fallin are open to privatizing at least a portion of the state's foster care system by getting local churches and nonprofit groups involved in the placement of children.
"I think everything is on the table when it comes to taking care of our children and making sure that they are safe," Askins said. "I would want to be able to look at what other states are doing well to keep their rates low for children in foster care. What good points of those other programs could we adopt?"
Fallin said the government can't solve the problem alone.
"I certainly think local churches and nonprofits should play a role in caring for abused and neglected children," Fallin said. "Faith-based initiatives have already proven to be enormously successful when it comes to the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction; there is no reason they should not play a bigger role in combating child abuse."
Fallin said there are things DHS can do, such as improving employee training and making sure child abuse complaints are investigated and don't slip through the cracks.
"The problem is bigger than DHS," she said. "Child abuse and crime, in general, are linked to poverty, substance abuse and lack of education. There is no silver bullet that will solve these problems overnight. With that said, getting our economy back on track — my number one priority as governor — would go a long way. Supporting drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation programs and reducing the high school dropout rate will also both play a role in reducing child abuse."
Askins said solving the problems is critical.
"I'm running for governor because I really believe that the future of Oklahoma lies in how we take care of our children," Askins said. "That includes their health, their education and their safety. Until we resolve issues in all of those areas, I think it is difficult for Oklahoma to have the kind of economic growth that we want."