THE Department of Human Services has put together a good plan to improve its care of abused and neglected children. If the plan that's ultimately approved looks anything like the draft released Friday, it's going to take considerable support from the Legislature and indeed everyday citizens to make it work.
The draft of what DHS is calling “The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan” was developed as required in the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that was filed against the agency in 2008 and settled early this year. The five-year plan has been presented to three neutral outside experts in foster care who can accept or reject it. If the experts reject it, DHS will be able to rework it and submit a second plan. If that proposal is rejected, the experts could provide their own plan.
It's evident in the draft that the lawsuit filed by Children's Rights Inc., and highly publicized stories about problems with foster care including the deaths of children, have the full attention of DHS. The proposals take aim at trying to address those concerns.
DHS proposes hiring 100 more child welfare workers and 20 more supervisors in each of the first two years of the plan. The idea is to reduce the workload across the board — current staff members handle far more child welfare cases than are recommended by experts, and that workload contributes to burnout and to some cases not getting proper attention.
To that end, the draft suggests limiting workers' caseloads in their first year on the job, and DHS wants to use licensed clinical professionals to help train case workers and to consult with them when tough decisions are needed. DHS also wants to gradually increase pay to caseworkers over five years.
All of these things must be paid for, of course, and that is where the Legislature comes in. DHS estimates it will require an additional $100 million per year in state funds to pay for all the proposed changes once they have been implemented. The Legislature would have to figure out a way to come up with the money; promises alone won't be enough. Republicans pushing for a large, immediate cut in the state's personal income tax, which provides nearly one-third of the money appropriated by the Legislature, need to remember that.