By Patrick B. McGuigan | CapitolBeatOK
OKLAHOMA CITY — After years of turmoil, including child deaths, a suicide and staff resignations, the state Department of Human Services has a solution — one that will cost taxpayers an extra $25 million next year and increase every year thereafter until it hits $100 million per year beginning 2018.
Some lawmakers have asserted that using the money to increase the number of case workers and strengthen the foster care system would assist DHS in its reorganization efforts.
But one lawmaker plans to watch this spending carefully.
The push for reform in DHS dates back a decade with reports of children who died after being returned to parents or guardians with troubled histories. In 2008, Children’s Rights, a New York-based group, sued the department over the deaths of these children under state supervision.
That turned up the heat on DHS. Several case workers resigned or were dismissed. One worker committed suicide and the DHS director resigned. Two interim directors later, DHS is conducting a nationwide search for a permanent director. That could take the rest of the year.
The settlement in the lawsuit required DHS to provide a plan of action to improve its children’s services. Three arbiters approved the department’s so-called Pinnacle Plan last month, and DHS must provide specific “performance targets” by December.
Even before the final Pinnacle Plan was approved, the Legislature appropriated an extra $25 million to DHS in late May.
The $25 million for fiscal 2013 is enough to begin the five-year process, DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell told CapitolBeatOK. If lawmakers give DHS $100 million a year beginning in 2018 — steadily increasing the annual appropriation between 2013 and then to reach that amount — the agency will use the money for more personnel, higher employee pay, increased reimbursements and other expenses, she said.
The DHS budget for fiscal 2013 is $2.1 billion, $1.5 billion of which comes from the federal government. Another $587 million comes from the state — including this year’s $25 million appropriation — and the remainder from fees.
The Pinnacle Plan presents an aggressive restructuring of the children’s services division to help the agency staff work better with the families and children. Among the major changes are:
- Consolidating child welfare services and field operations into one division;
- Placing more children in foster care by eliminating shelter care for the youngest children and reducing such care for older children;
- Determining and enforcing “reasonable workloads” for child welfare staff.
DHS plans to begin achieving these goals this year by using the $25 million to:
- Increase adoption subsidies and foster care reimbursement rates;
- Establish a public-private partnership to recruit foster families;
- Hire 100 case workers this year and 100 more next year;
- Reduce the number of managers from 77 to 27.
Adoption subsidies and foster care rates will see the largest increases this year, said Melissa Lange, the agency’s budget manager.
Hiring is under way for more case workers, she added. This past month, case workers saw increases in their salaries approved.
Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, and some legislative leaders have endorsed the plan and its recommended spending.
“The state is increasing its efforts to attract and retain foster parents, with the goal of getting more children out of state shelters and into safe, caring, family environments,” said Alex Weintz, the governor’s spokesman. “In order to do that, the plan calls for rate increases for foster parents, both to attract and retain foster families, and to make sure existing foster families have adequate support to care for their foster children.”
Weintz said salary increases would help “Oklahoma to attract and retain quality caseworkers and to ensure those caseworkers are not so overburdened as to be ineffective. To support that goal, the Pinnacle Plan calls for a modest increase in compensation for front-line child welfare workers.”
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who supported the $25 million appropriation and the final Pinnacle Plan following two drafts, said the extra funding is “a lot, but it’s not going be as bad as it looks.”
Nelson pointed to changes designed to address turnover among employees and foster families as well as reduce the number of managers in children’s services.
“We knew as we were developing the Pinnacle Plan that it was going to cost more money. Without it, the plan would almost certainly fail. However, I am constantly cautioning or reminding others of two major considerations,” Nelson said.
“First, is that this whole reform effort will take time — years, not days or months. The Pinnacle Plan is a five-year plan. Second, money alone will not help at all. The reforms will cost money but the most important change that needs to take place within DHS and, frankly, outside of the agency, is a culture change. I don’t think money can buy this kind of change.”
Nelson explained that the “culture” at DHS needs to shift from compliance to procedures to common sense and compassion.
In the final budget, state Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, was one of 42 House members to oppose the $25 million for the Pinnacle Plan.
“We were left out, at quite a distance, and forced to make a decision without any information. I just did not know enough to make an intelligent decision when the vote was held,” he said.
Ritze cautioned that time will tell whether the DHS plan is a prudent use of the taxpayers’ money.
“We will not let this issue go unaudited, and will continue to monitor any problems that arise. As long as there is transparency, we can work on this. With proper oversight and discipline, we can achieve the goal of making the agency stronger in its mission to serve the citizens properly,” he said.