Reforming the child welfare system: A progress report

OKPinnaclePlanSM_cfsd_02142012One year after Oklahoma finalized an historic plan to transform its child welfare system, significant changes have been put in place. However, major obstacles remain and the ultimate success of the Pinnacle Plan will depend on many more years of hard work, shared commitment, financial resources, and institutional creativity.

In July 2012, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) announced the Pinnacle Plan to reform  child welfare services. The plan emerged out of a settlement agreement reached in a federal class action lawsuit, D.G. v. Yarbrough, challenging the state’s treatment of children in foster care. The system was faulted for allowing  abuse of children in its care, placing children in overcrowded and understaffed emergency shelters, and failing to provide secure and long-term placements, among other concerns.

Under the settlement agreement, a team of three independent experts, known as the “co-neutrals”, were granted formal authority to approve the agency’s plan and monitor its implementation. The approved Pinnacle Plan lays out “a five-year roadmap of significant commitments“.  DHS has established a homepage for Pinnacle Plan information, which provides public access to monthly and quarterly progress reports.

DHS has spent the last fifteen months focused on four major areas of reform.  The first major reform, which was completed in October 2012, established a new, integrated Child Welfare Division within DHS. Where previously child welfare supervisors and directors had responsibility for multiple program areas, the new structure consists of 27 district directors and five regional directors dedicated exclusively to child welfare services.  The new organizational structure limits supervisors to five field workers to ensure more manageable workloads and greater oversight.

The agency’s second priority was eliminating shelter care entirely for the youngest children and reducing its use for older youth. The Pinnacle Plan’s target was to have no children under age 2 spend an evening in a shelter after December 31, 2012 and no children under age 6 after June 30, 2013, with certain defined exceptions.  By changing how the Department handles young children removed from their homes and by aggressively recruiting emergency foster care providers, DHS was able to eliminate nights in shelters for children under age 2 almost entirely in early 2013. However, since April, the numbers have increased back up for infants, and there were over 800 shelter nights for children aged 2-5 in July. Meeting the next target of no children under age 12 to be placed in overnight shelters by the end of July 2014 will clearly be difficult.

The third major priority has been to grow more family settings for children in out-of home-placement, including resource homes and therapeutic foster homes.  The Pinnacle Plan provided targets of recruiting 781 newly-approved regular foster homes in FY 2013 and 150 new therapeutic foster homes to serve children with the highest needs. For the year, the agency met and exceeded its target by recruiting 796 new regular new foster homes, but fell far short with therapeutic homes, recruiting just 86.

DHS decided to begin contracting out recruitment services for resource homes to private companies, as was done already with therapeutic foster homes. After initial contracts were revoked by Director Ed Lake, the agency announced in early August that contracts totaling $8.71 million had been awarded to four companies, two based in Oklahoma and two in Kansas. The agency also approved a $4.6 million increase in reimbursement rates for foster care and adoptive families in FY 2013. It intended to raise rates again in FY 2014, but has delayed doing so in the absence of sufficient funding from the legislature.

The final major priority has aimed at ensuring reasonable workloads for staff so that they can devote themselves properly to the needs of vulnerable children and families. Heavy caseloads, low pay, and stressful, dangerous jobs have all hampered efforts to recruit and retain an adequate number of child welfare workers. Since the start of FY 2013, DHS has boosted the child welfare workforce by some 190 field workers, along with several hundred child welfare assistants, supervisors, trainers, administrative staff and others.  They are looking to add 200 more child welfare workers in FY 2014, but also need to fill some 150-175 vacant positions. Child welfare workers received salary boosts of $120-$260 per month in FY 2013 in accordance with the Pinnacle Plan, but they have not received raises for FY 2014.

A serious factor hindering all the agency’s efforts to improve the child welfare system is that the number of abused and neglected children under DHS care continues to increase. There were 10,234 children in the system at the beginning of FY 2014, compared to 7,970 at the beginning of FY 2011, a 28 percent increase. The number of reported incidents of abuse and neglect, investigations, and confirmed cases also continue to increase, as the Figure below shows.

child welfare dataWhile continuing to work  to eliminate shelter care for children, expand family settings, and stabilize the child welfare workforce, the Pinnacle Plan sets out additional goals for the years ahead. These include increasing the frequency of caseworker visits; ensuring that all visits are made by a child’s primary caseworker; increasing caseworker continuity; improving placement stability for children in foster families; and reducing incidents of abuse and neglect of children under DHS custody. In most of these areas, the Pinnacle Plan lays out new or more ambitious performance targets over the next four years.

Despite the Plan’s public reporting requirements, it is very hard to measure the changes that have taken place and the impact they are having. Many changes have been implemented and some outcome targets have been met, but others have not, and while the state is obliged to report to the co-neutrals, it’s not clear what actions the co-neutrals can and will take when outcomes fall short.

The Pinnacle Plan states:
OKDHS needs the support of external stakeholders, the community, the Oklahoma Legislature, the Governor’s office, the media, and local and federal partners to make change happen.
If anything is clear, it is that without the sustained, vigilant, and committed involvement of all these players, success is unlikely.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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