Three out-of-state experts on Wednesday approved a costly DHS plan to reform the state's child welfare operations.
Under the wide-ranging, 47-page plan, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services will have to hire more child welfare workers, recruit more foster parents and move away from caring for abused and neglected children at shelters.
The experts called the DHS plan “a five-year road map of significant commitments” and “a bold new vision.”
DHS officials first made public the proposal in March and then released a revised version in May. They have dubbed it “The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan.”
At issue going forward is whether state leaders will remain committed to completing the expensive changes. Officials have estimated DHS will need almost $100 million more a year in state funds once all the reforms are in place.
The Oklahoma Legislature increased DHS funding by $50 million in the 2013 fiscal year, with half that amount to help pay for the Pinnacle Plan.
Gov. Mary Fallin promised Wednesday that “DHS will continue to have my support and assistance as it works to implement the Pinnacle Plan.”
“The success of these reforms is critical to ensuring the state can provide adequate protection and care to vulnerable Oklahoma children,” she said.
In announcing their approval, the three experts said: “This is a thoughtful and ambitious plan. Very hard work is yet ahead to build the system DHS describes. Success will require the continued leadership and support of all three branches of government in the best interests of Oklahoma children.
“It will not be easy — change of this magnitude takes time.”
Nuts and bolts
During the first year, the plan calls for DHS to hire 100 more child welfare workers and to recruit 500 more traditional foster parents.
Under the plan, child welfare workers will be paid more, trained better and have reduced caseloads.
The plan requires DHS to eliminate shelter use for the youngest abused and neglected children in its care and steeply reduce shelter use for older children. The first step is for DHS, by Dec. 31, to put all babies and 1-year-olds in its care in family-like settings rather than shelters.
By June 30, all children 6 and younger in its care must be in family-like settings rather than shelters.
The agency already has begun work on the changes. On Tuesday, DHS commissioners, for instance, voted to make the first of five planned increases in pay for traditional foster parents.
The first pay increase goes into effect Aug. 1.
DHS settled suit
“This is an exciting time of great reform at DHS,” said Wes Lane, chairman of the commission that oversees DHS policies. “Rarely before in state history have we seen so many people all pulling the same wagon in the same direction.”
DHS commissioners agreed to make the reforms to the agency's child welfare operations when they voted in January to settle a federal class-action lawsuit.
The agreement came at a time DHS was under considerable legislative and public scrutiny because of the deaths of children in its care.
Under the terms of the settlement, the three neutral outside experts are being paid to review the plan and monitor its implementation.
If they had rejected the DHS plan, the experts could have appointed someone else to come up with a plan or they could have written one themselves.
The federal lawsuit was brought by a New York City-based child advocacy group known as Children's Rights. It sued DHS officials in 2008 in federal court in Tulsa. The group sued on behalf of the state's foster children.
The group alleged in the lawsuit that DHS policies and practices were so bad that neglected and abused children were being harmed or were at risk of harm at state shelters and foster homes.
In a statement Wednesday, Children's Rights said, “Given the considerable impact this will have on Oklahoma's abused and neglected children, it is gratifying to see the settlement agreement begin to come to fruition.”
DHS Interim Director Preston Doerflinger said Wednesday that the agency has begun working already with the experts “on performance targets and baselines which will measure our successful implementation of this plan as we move forward.”
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said, “It's clear to anyone who reviews the plan that this is not an attempt at a political quick fix. This is a complex, long-term solution that will make a meaningful, transformational difference for Oklahoma's at-risk children.”
Nelson led a four-member House of Representatives panel that spent months studying DHS by talking with hundreds of agency workers, parents, judges and others who work with the agency.
This is an exciting time of great reform at DHS. Rarely before in state history have we seen so many people all pulling the same wagon in the same direction.”