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More funding is sought for Oklahoma's child welfare plan

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: January 23, 2013 at 9:48 pm •  Published: January 24, 2013
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The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is seeking a larger than anticipated increase in state funds to accelerate recommended changes in a five-year plan to improve child welfare operations.

Ed Lake, director of the state's largest agency, told a legislative budget subcommittee Tuesday the agency is seeking about $11 million more than the $60 million expected to be appropriated in the first two years of the Pinnacle Plan.

Lake, hired in October from Tennessee, where he was deputy director of that state's human services agency, said DHS would like a $46 million increase instead of the projected $30 million hike to implement the plan for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“We want to accelerate some of the work that we're doing to get some of these reforms in place quicker because they're critical to the overall success of the plan,” Lake said. “They're critical to providing services, driving workloads down.”

The plan was to get $30 million in funding each of the first two years. Lawmakers last year appropriated $25 million for the first year of the plan, which among other things calls for hiring more child welfare workers, recruiting more foster parents and moving away from caring for abused and neglected children at shelters.

Lake, making his first budget request to Oklahoma lawmakers, said the extra money in the upcoming fiscal year would allow for changes to occur quicker than expected as well as reduce an increased allocation for the third year of the plan, from an additional $20 million to $12 million.

Additional funding for the plan's final two years is projected at $12 million each. At the end of the five years, the state will have provided almost $100 million more a year to DHS to pay for the changes. With federal funds, the total additional cost is estimated at about $153 million a year.

Call to hire, pay more

Legislators last year allocated $587.1 million to DHS, an increase of $50 million, with half of that going to the Pinnacle Plan. Lake is seeking an increase of about $80 million for the 2014 fiscal year. The agency receives about $1.6 billion in federal funds, putting its total annual budget at nearly $2.2 billion.

Other uses for additional requested state funds include paying for an increase in developmental disabilities and aging community services rate increases, nearly $10 million, and nearly $3 million to reduce the eight-year waiting list for developmental disabilities services.

Lake said the agency will have hired 100 more child welfare workers and supervisors by the end of this month as called for in the Pinnacle Plan.

The new workers must complete a competency test and training before they can begin accepting caseloads, said Deborah Smith, director of the agency's child welfare services. She said it will be about nine months before the new workers will handle a full caseload.

The additional workers will bring the agency's worker-to-child ratio to 1 to 5, as recommended in the plan, she said. The ratio now is 1 to 8.

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