Patrick B. McGuigan
Although they both represent parts of Oklahoma’s largest city, there are frequently political or policy disagreements between Richard Morrissette -- a Democratic legislator who for nearly a decade has pressed for transformational changes at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services -- and Jason Nelson, the Republican who worked with House Speaker Kris Steele to craft many of the changes in state law facilitating agency reforms this year.
Still, the pair of Oklahoma City representatives on Wednesday (July 25) had similar responses to news that the “co-Neutrals” appointed by a federal court have approved a final “Pinnacle Plan,” the framework for sweeping changes in agency governance and practices (and anticipated spending increases).
In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Rep. Morrissette said the plan is “the culmination of several years of work.” He said that labor began for him when constituents called to describe stories of child endangerment, employee misbehavior and other problems at the agency. Morrissette for years pressed to compact agency management and reduce the number of departmental “silos” at DHS, and for a detailed audit of performance.
After years of frustration, including clashes with the Republican majority, Morrissette, a member of the minority caucus in the state House, participated with a working group led by Rep. Nelson.
Morrissette said, “Now we see a culmination of those efforts. It is a shame that it takes this long.” Concerning the agency, the Democratic solon said, “Institutional resistance was a very significant factor in the delay in the state responding to this issue. As for the lawsuit, it is a shame that had to happen to protect the children. We could have saved millions in funds, years of efforts and many lives if we had responded earlier. It’s just a shame this didn’t happen earlier.”
The referenced lawsuit, D.G. vs. Yarborough, resulted in a settlement agreement that will boost the agency’s spending by about $100 million a year upon full implementation, expected in five years.
The settlement led to judicial appointment of the three “co-Neutrals” who approved a final plan for the agency on Wednesday (July 25). Still to come, however, are the details of how the plan will be “bench-marked” for implementation.
First year costs are pegged at $25 million, a sum approved this past legislative session.
Rep. Nelson, the conservative legislator who guided the package of reform measures, expressed satisfaction, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK:
"Approval of the Pinnacle Plan will be remembered as the moment the status quo started changing for the better in Oklahoma's child welfare system. The Pinnacle Plan represents the most comprehensive and aggressive reform of our state's child welfare system in this agency's history. It's clear to anyone who reviews the plan that this is not an attempt at a political quick-fix. This is a complex, long-term solution that will make a meaningful, transformational difference for Oklahoma's at-risk children.
“Oklahoma now stands above other states facing similar child welfare challenges due to the unwavering support of our major stakeholders, including the Legislature, the governor, the agency and all others. The public should have confidence in the plan and high expectations for the results it can bring if all stakeholders continue working together to ensure the plan's full implementation. Children in state custody will be much safer and see far better outcomes under this historic plan."
In their joint statement provided to CapitolBeatOK, the co-Neutrals said they approved the plan because it will advance fulfillment of a variety of commitments flowing from the lawsuit and legislative actions of the past two years. Specifically:
“1. A commitment to work with families and children as partners, and provide services to help strengthen families and ensure children’s safety, permanency and well-being;
“2. A newly integrated system for screening, investigating and reporting allegations of child maltreatment in out of home care;
“3. The elimination of shelter care for young children and steep reductions in the use of shelter care for older youth;
“4. The end of primary and secondary casework assignments, which had at times led to confusion and diluted accountability;
“5. Ambitious commitments to grow more family settings for children in out of home placement, including resource homes and treatment foster homes;
“6. The establishment of a new, integrated Child Welfare Division within DHS with responsibility for children’s safety, permanency and wellbeing;
“7. Reasonable workloads for staff so that they can devote themselves properly to the needs of vulnerable children and families.”
The agency has been shredded with criticisms after the deaths of children in state care over the past decade.
DHS Director Howard Hendrick resigned after the settlement agreement was reached last winter. Two members of the commission’s governing body resigned their posts this spring after criticism from the state Ethics Commission.
Among the reforms crafted by legislators is a shift away from the traditional commission system, toward direct gubernatorial-appointment of agency personnel – but that will require popular approval. If voters pass a proposed constitutional amendment in November, the commission structure that some have blamed for the problems at DHS will end.