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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About 9,000 children statewide are living in foster care, with relatives or in shelters, she said.

The Pinnacle Plan also calls for the agency to recruit 500 more traditional foster parents.

Smith said 960 resource families have been recruited through Jan. 7.

Under the plan, child welfare workers are to be paid more, trained better and have reduced caseloads.

Lake said other employees in the agency have gone several years without a pay increase. The last across-the-board pay increase for state employees was October 2006. He estimated it would cost $12.5 million for an across-the-board increase for his agency's employees if the agency would be brought up to 95 percent of the average salary level in state government.

“Their cost of living has gone up, and people are still working at a wage level that hasn't changed in a long time,” Lake said.

Changes in shelter use

The plan also requires DHS to eliminate shelter use for the youngest abused and neglected children in its care and steeply reduce shelter use for older children. DHS met a Dec. 31 deadline to put all babies and 1-year-olds in its care in family-like settings rather than shelters. By June 30, all years and younger in its care must be in family-like settings. By June 30, 2014, children younger than 13 must be placed in foster homes.

DHS commissioners agreed last year to make the changes to settle a federal class-action lawsuit. Under terms of the settlement, three neutral outside experts are being paid to review the plan and monitor its implementation.

Standard questions

Tuesday's budget meeting was the first of several planned by legislative panels to review agency performances and hear budget requests. Information will be used to help develop a state budget. Lawmakers are expected to have about $7 billion to appropriate. The session starts Feb. 4 and runs through late May.

Tuesday's meeting was a joint session between budget committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Standard questions asked how agencies would handle a 3 percent budget reduction in the 2014 fiscal year and the consequences if all federal funding ended.

“They sent that to everybody,” said Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, chairman of the House budget subcommittee on human services. “I don't see DHS getting cut.”

With federal funds making up about 75 percent of its budget, the loss of that money would result in many of its programs being eliminated or reduced, according to the agency's response.

Lake said it's estimated DHS could lose about $7.5 million in federal funds if a deal on spending cuts isn't reached in Washington by March 1. If a deal isn't reached, the “fiscal cliff,” or sequestration, could result in the state losing $137 million in direct federal funding.