Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins and Republican candidate Mary Fallin say changes are needed in Oklahoma's child welfare system to stem the cycle of abuse and neglect. The candidates discussed their ideas for reforming with The Oklahoman. Questions were provided to their campaigns in advance. Askins responded during a telephone interview, while Fallin responded by e-mail. Responses have been edited for length.
Askins: On almost all things regarding children, the first thing that I want to be able to do is issue an executive order and create a children's cabinet. It won't solve the problem overnight, but I've advocated for four years or more for a children's cabinet and have not been successful at the Legislature. ... A children's cabinet is an opportunity for the state to establish priorities and areas of focus and then make sure that everyone involved in children's programming is focused in the same direction.
Fallin: Child abuse and crime in general are linked to poverty, substance abuse and lack of education. There is no silver bullet that will solve these problems overnight. With that said, getting our economy back on track — my number one priority as governor — will go a long way. Supporting drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation programs and reducing the high school dropout rate will also both play a role.
Askins: We've had so many children who have been removed from homes that we have seen a need for an increased number of foster families. So the concern would be: Are we appropriately training (new foster parents) or are we so far behind in the number of families that we need that we are coming up and putting children — many of whom come with emotional and physical needs that everyday people may not be aware of — with families that aren't prepared? ... (One,) I think more support (is needed). We know that financially it is very difficult for foster families to afford the care of extra children. Two, we need to look at the training of foster families and certainly, three, how we recruit foster families.
Fallin: The high number of abused and neglected children in foster care is completely unacceptable. As governor, one thing I will ask for is a thorough review of how DHS screens out complaints of child abuse. For too long, we have allowed legitimate reports of abuse and neglect to fall through the cracks, taking children with them. We need to immediately tighten up that process so that each and every legitimate complaint is investigated.
Askins: I think it's very difficult. I have some child welfare workers in my area — where I come from in Duncan — supervisors that have been there for decades, and they were in their positions when I was a judge. They are very frustrated as they see time spent in training child welfare workers, and because of the high caseloads and low pay, when those workers have a chance to move to a better job, they do so. Sometimes it is for the salary. Sometimes it's because the work is incredibly difficult and it's very emotional. ... Being able to train and, I think, have ... more caseworkers so we can reduce the average caseload is one way that we can begin to build some experience among those workers. It's not easy. It's hard work.
Fallin: It's pretty clear that DHS caseworkers are frustrated by huge caseloads and, like a lot of Americans, upset that they have not seen a pay increase recently. When it comes to their workloads, I think we can find better ways of utilizing technology to organize and file casework, making that burden more manageable. Where funding is concerned, the unfortunate truth is that we are facing a prolonged recession and a budget crisis. I can't promise to spend money we don't have, but getting our economy back on track and increasing our revenue stream will be my number one goal as governor of Oklahoma.
Askins: Everything is going to be difficult in terms of the budget. To be able to hire new case managers implies that the money is going to have to be taken from somewhere else. We have got to address that backlog, just as we have in some other areas that the Department of Human Services has responsibilities. That's one reason that I hope we can talk to the Legislature ... about focusing on the budget at the beginning of the session. ... We need to have more time for more legislators to look in depth at how money's being spent. ... We're not going to fix this overnight. We're going to have to have a multiyear approach, especially because of the economy. But to be able to hire the right people and get them properly trained — we don't just want to continue the cycle we're in of hiring a bunch of people, training them, and then them leaving.
Fallin: Again, I believe we can make better use of technology to more efficiently organize and manage casework, eliminating some paperwork and giving employees more time in the field. I also think we need to continue to look to our larger societal problems. Overworked DHS staffers represent just a small part of a much greater problem: too many high school dropouts and high rates of poverty and substance abuse combine to create an environment ripe for child abuse and neglect.
Q: What other changes would you propose?
Askins: I just think that all of our agencies need to have a significant review, and that's why I believe that we should deal with the budget at the beginning of this legislative session. And I also believe that the state of Oklahoma should consider a state question that would give us a two-year budget cycle and then set every other year where we do nothing but budget. When we do that, we have an opportunity to look closely at how programs are being run ... and we have a better opportunity for all legislators to be involved in helping make those decisions.
Fallin: Again, the problem is bigger than DHS. It's about Oklahoma's systemic issues with poverty and other social problems. When we are losing the battle in our homes and communities to drug and alcohol addiction, when we see high unemployment, ... we are setting the stage for neglect, abuse and worse. There are things we can do internally in DHS, like improving our employee training. ... I am committed to working toward these goals. But we can never lose sight of the larger goal, which is to create a more prosperous, socially healthy state where child abuse does not run rampant.