Lawmakers concerned cuts could lead to federal takeover (Claremore Daily Progress)

By Janelle Stecklein

Concerns are mounting that the Legislature’s ongoing budget woes could lead to a new court showdown and trigger a possible federal takeover of the state’s foster care system.

And observers fear the biggest loser in the tussle would be Oklahoma’s most vulnerable children — the nearly 9,500 abused and neglected kids currently in foster care — the caseworkers who protect them, and the thousands of families who have agreed to shelter the youth in their time of greatest need.

Critics, meanwhile, claim officials are flirting with disaster as they consider chopping millions in funding to the state’s foster care program in an effort to fill an $878 million shortfall.


“The really big concern is the kids,” said Gene Perry, policy director at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank. “(It could result) in more kids in dangerous situations and threatened with abuse and neglect and all these things because we don’t have the resources to take care of them.”The child welfare system remains under a microscope. A handful of years ago, a court battle ensued over whether the Department of Human Services was adequately protecting youth after the deaths of children in its custody.

The state ultimately agreed to settle the lawsuit. Oklahoma implemented a series of improvements, best known as the Pinnacle Plan, and must make continued “good faith efforts” at implementing those changes.

A team checks and reports on the state’s progress every six months. If those monitors don’t believe certain goals are achieved, Oklahoma can be sued again and face even more stringent sanctions.

“Having a federal court come in and take over our DHS system is the worst possible solution because then it completely ties our budgetary hands and would require us to spend money that we really don’t have,” said House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City. But, he said that could be a reality if Pinnacle Plan funding is slashed to balance the budget.

In an effort to comply with the settlement, lawmakers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into bolstering the program.

“We simply have to find the money in the budget to continue to show our state’s commitment to improving our child welfare system,” said Sen. A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie. “We’re not finished, and so it’s important that we maintain that commitment.”

She said lawmakers implemented several improvements that would be impossible to undo.

The state has hired nearly 900 new caseworkers and supervisors; boosted the pay for those workers over three years; and increased reimbursement rates for foster families in an effort to incentivize more Oklahomans to shelter displaced youth, said Sheree Powell, a spokeswoman for the state agency. In all, officials have added more than 3,000 new homes to its ranks.

All that is now in jeopardy because of possible budget cuts, wrote Director Ed Lake in letter to employees and foster families.

If a proposed 14 percent cut becomes reality, it will be impossible to protect the program.

The agency will have to reduce the stipend it pays to foster families, cut contracts for existing group homes and increase caseloads for employees, he said.

“This would significantly jeopardize most of the progress that has been made with the Pinnacle Plan and risk DHS’s good faith efforts to resolve the monitoring of our foster care system,” he said. “It would also mean that the more than $230 million the state and the department have invested into these improvements will have been for nothing.”

DHS was among the agencies that received a letter from lawmakers warning them to brace for a 14.5 budget cut and asking them to outline what such reductions would mean.


“The 14.5 percent cut correspondence was not once again meant as a letter to signal there is going to be a 14.5 percent cut across the board,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. “It’s more or less to ask for feedback from the agencies and to put them on notice that if nothing were to change today, assuming all things as they are, that could be the scenario.”

He said Pinnacle Plan funding has been a top priority for his Republican caucus members.

“We’re going to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society receive the services that they need,” he said.

But Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman, said nearly all agencies should be braced for that 14.5 percent cut.

The Pinnacle Plan may just end up another casualty.

“That’s another terrible result of short-sighted planning,” he said.

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