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Q & A with gubernatorial candidates Jari Askins and Mary Fallin concerning Oklahoma's troubled child welfare system

Oklahoma has one of the highest child death rates from abuse and neglect in the nation. Gubernatorial candidates Jari Askins and Mary Fallin discuss their plans to improve the system.
BY RANDY ELLIS Published: October 17, 2010

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.

Q: Oklahoma has been criticized for giving its workers caseloads that far exceed national standards. Do you have a proposal to improve that situation, knowing the current budget constraints?

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.