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.