Patrick B McGuigan
Three “co-Neutrals” empowered to review Oklahoma’s “Pinnacle Plan” for reforms at the Department of Human Services (DHS) have given their approval to the final version of recommended changes in structure, policies, procedures and operations at the controversial agency. Price tag for the anticipated changes will reach $100 million a year (in increased DHS spending) by 2018.
Much of the work of Eileen Crummy, Kathleen Noonan and Kevin Ryan – the “co-Neutrals”
– is not subject to Oklahoma’s open records and transparency provisions but is intricately wrapped up in the results of years of litigation.
Although the plan of action is now “final,” some important specifics remain to be ironed out, as a statement from the trio, referencing the underlying federal lawsuit settled early this year, made clear on Wednesday (July 25):
“As contemplated by the parties’ original agreement, we now turn our attention to working with the parties to identify the specific performance targets and baselines that will mark Oklahoma’s progress in the implementation of the Pinnacle Plan, which we expect to finalize by no later than December 2012.”
Whether the plan is in literally final form or not, change -- expensive change -- is coming to DHS.
Appropriations action at the Legislature this year built in spending increases that will (after full implementation of the Pinnacle Plan) cost taxpayers another $100 million+ per year. The first year costs of $25 million should be sufficient for initial implementation, agency spokeswoman Sheree Powell told CapitolBeatOK Wednesday evening.
Cost drivers include an increase in the number of social welfare case workers, offset only in part by possible decreases in the number of management personnel. The boosts in foster care reimbursements are intended to boost the number of stable families willing to serve as fosters. Governor Mary Fallin has made several public service announcements (PSAs) touting this cause.
Earlier this week, the agency’s governing commission approved pay raises for employees and increases in foster care rates. Former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane is now chairman of the commission, and presided at a meeting held Monday (July 23). Two brand new commissioners, Brandon Clabes and Myron Pope, participated in their first meeting that day.
The Pinnacle Plan, and its spending hikes, flow from settlement of a major lawsuit
filed against the state of Oklahoma. The state agreed to address 15 “key performance areas,” including:
(1) child abuse and neglect in care,
(2) the number of foster homes available for children in need of therapeutic care,
(3) the number of foster homes available for children not in need of therapeutic care,
(4) visitation of children by case workers,
(5) continuity of visitation by the same case worker,
(6) on an annual basis, the average number of placements experienced by a child two years old or older, excluding the ten percent of children with the least number of changes in placement and the ten percent of children with the highest number of changes in placement,
(7) the actual number of placements for each child two years old or older that is in the ten percent of children two years old or older with the highest number of changes in placements,
(8) on an annual basis, the average number of placements experienced by a child under two years old, excluding the ten percent of children with the least number of placements and the ten percent of children with the highest number of placements,
(9) the actual number of placements for each child under two years old who is in the ten percent of children under two years old with the highest number of placements,
(10) as of March 31 and September 30 of each year, the number of children in shelters delineated by even ages (i.e., younger than 2 years, 2 years old to 4 years old, 4 years old to 6 years old, ... ),
(11) during the same six month time period (April through September and October through March), the average stay in a shelter for each age group identified in subparagraph (10), excluding the ten percent of children with the shortest stay in a shelter and the ten percent of children with the longest stay in a shelter,
(12) the actual length of stay for each child that is in the ten percent of children with the longest stay in a shelter,
(13) permanency (i.e., the child exits the system with a connection to a permanent family),
(14) adoption, including adoption failure rates, and
The judicial order did not directly mandate increased taxpayer spending, and thus is distinguishable from normal “class action” litigation, but subsequent steps have made clear the extent of spending boosts over the next half-decade.
In her exchange with CapitolBeatOK, Powell reflected that ultimate judicial review of the plan will be from a “good faith” standard, recognizing that the agency and the co-Neutrals do not control legislative appropriations, but will encourage implementation of the agreement.
In response to questions, Powell reiterated that discussions among the co-Neutrals are not subject to open records act or state transparency requirements.