DHS officials have revised their child welfare reform plan, agreeing that abused and neglected babies should no longer be housed in state shelters after the end of the year.
Officials also pledged to take actions to improve customer service at the Department of Human Services.
“I'm pretty pleased with the revisions,” said Deborah Smith, DHS director of Children and Family Services.
Smith said she was particularly happy about revisions designed to assist families in becoming foster parents more quickly.
DHS was required to develop a child welfare reform plan as part of a settlement agreement announced last January. The settlement resolved a federal class-
DHS officials presented three out-of-state monitors with the initial draft of its proposed plan in late March. The monitors then received comments from the child advocacy group that filed the lawsuit. The monitors met with DHS officials last week to discuss suggested changes.
DHS submitted a revised reform plan to the monitors Tuesday.
Future changes are possible.
Most of the original reform recommendations remain intact, including plans to decrease caseloads, add 200 new child welfare workers over the next two years and recruit 500 new traditional foster families by the end of the first fiscal year. The agency wants more foster families so it can stop using its often-overcrowded shelters to care for the youngest abused and neglected children.
The revised plan incorporates a few changes, however.
It speeds up the process for getting abused and neglected babies out of state shelters and into family-like settings.
The original plan called for eliminating the use of shelters for children younger than 6 years old by June 30, 2013.
The new plan would require that all children under 2 years old be placed in family-like settings by Dec. 31, while leaving the earlier date intact for children ages 2 to 6.
DHS pledged to improve customer service in order to recruit and retain more foster parents.
About 5,000 families expressed an interest in becoming foster families during fiscal year 2011, but did not make it through the approval process.
“Approximately 15 percent of families who expressed interest dropped out of the process due to poor customer service,” the revised plan states, citing surveys and interviews.
Customer service training will be required of all staff that have not completed it within the past year and all staff will be “evaluated based on their ability to appropriately and timely respond to potential resource parents,” the plan states.
The Oklahoman reported recently that a four- to six-month backlog in processing home studies for foster parents has delayed placement of children in traditional foster homes and delayed payments to kinship foster parents.
The revised plan calls for use of contractors and volunteers to speed up home studies.
“By Dec. 31, OKDHS will shorten the length of time expected to complete home studies to 30 days and shorten the length of time from application to certification to no more than 60 days unless the family chooses to extend the process,” the revised plan states.
The updated Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan also provides new details about the sizes of pay increases for child welfare workers that the DHS intends to request from the state Legislature.
The agency wants to give three classifications of child welfare workers incremental annual raises that would hike their pay 26 percent to 40 percent by the end of five years.
Pay increases are needed to make agency salaries “more competitive with other states,” the report says.
It cites examples of proposed pay increases that would be phased in incrementally over five years. The pay of a child welfare II worker would gradually increase from $2,624 to $3,307; the pay of a child welfare III worker would increase from $2,894 to $4,040; and pay of a child welfare IV worker would increase from $3,466 to $4,604.
“A salary increase alone is not likely to bring about the changes needed in the Oklahoma child welfare system,” the report states. “However, OKDHS is in a workforce crisis. For the past year, it has been very difficult to attract an adequate pool of eligible candidates and retain high-performing staff in a complex and challenging field when salaries are not competitive.”
Smith said she doesn't expect there to be much cost difference between the original and revised reform plans submitted by the agency. Officials said previously they expect proposed reforms to cost nearly $150 million more a year, once they are all in place.