DHS “Pinnacle” draft envisions funding increase, more case workers, management reforms — and families willing to provide foster homes

The first draft of an comprehensive improvement plan for child protective services at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services projects an agency organizational shake-up to bring more vertical (bottom-up) ties between policy and line work, a major boost in the number of case workers, and a projected $100 million annual increase (after the fifth year of implementation) in the agency’s budget. 

The draft was released to news organizations today as it was posted on the DHS website and forwarded to three “Co-neutrals” who will review it with quasi-judicial authority granted as a result of the “D.G. vs. Yarborough” class action lawsuit and its resolution earlier this year. 

The details of the draft proposal to implement a judicially-administered settlement negotiation, and the hefty price tag that accompanies the envisioned reforms, are clearly important.

However, a response to CapitolBeatOK from Deborah Smith, child and family services director at DHS, whose staff devised the document’s name (The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan) might be a significant indication of both the possibilities and limits of government action in this challenging policy arena. 

When Smith was asked to pinpoint the most important thing in the report – the increased resources, the policy changes or something else – she  responded immediately, “The families.” She explained her brief response, saying “the most important is families, and the recruitment” of more of them willing to act as fosters for children from troubled environments.

Within the report, Pinnacle Point 1 deals with “recruitment and support of foster families,” and the requirement to have what the improvement plan characterizes as “an adequate number of foster parents (resource parents” for abused and neglected children. 

The intention of the plan’s framers is to recognize that “Stable families provide children with life experiences they need for healthy physical, emotional and social development.” The agency “has not been able to meet this need in the past, but that is going to change. Children, especially young children, will not be in shelters.”  

Closely tied to this first area of emphasis in the vision of the document’s framers is “Pinnacle Point 7” – to “engage community partners, other state agencies, the private sector and Tribes in supporting children and families involved with the child welfare system.”  

Asked for more detail on her views about the role of churches in the new welfare reform effort, Governor Mary Fallin told CapitolBeatOK, “Faith-based organizations offer important services in our communities and can be a great help to families in the child welfare system with counseling and guidance programs as well as emotional and financial support.  Faith-based organizations have the power to change lives in a way that government programs cannot and these groups will be an helpful partner as we work together to ensure our children are better protected.” 

In addition to the faith-based community and Tribes, point 7’s outreach is to include foster parents, law enforcement, district attorneys and other lawyers, the court appointed special advocates (CASA), post adjudication review boards, judges, community providers, schools and businesses.

At the plan’s unveiling, Gov. Fallin joined House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman to support the draft. The trio did not answer questions from reporters, but each made clear a determination to reform the government’s system of child protection and welfare. 

Fallin said, “We have no intention of falling short.” The chief executive recently recorded a Public Service Announcement (PSA) that will be used in recruitment of more foster parents and families.

Steele praised a bipartisan group from the House, four of his colleagues (including state Reps. Jason Nelson and Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City) who are carrying legislation that will provide at the least the framework of the reform plan.

In his customary restrained manner, Senator Bingman calmly stated he believed the plan is historic – indeed, “a turning point for Oklahoma.” He called on the faith community to engage in transformation of services to children. He concluded, “We need good people to step up.”

Human Services Commission Chairman Brad Yarborough told reporters and various “stakeholders” it was “exciting to see the momentum that’s building” for reform.

As anticipated, the draft reform plan touches virtually every aspect of operations in child protective services in Oklahoma. In a January 6 report, CapitolBeatOK distilled likely implementation of the settlement agreement:

“Although distinguishable from a ‘normal’ class action lawsuit settlement in which a jurist directly orders expenditures, millions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of millions, will need to be reallocated within existing expenditures or financed through new appropriations to implement provisions agreed to by state officials, agency leadership and outside litigants.”

Smith sat with reporters for about a half hour after the political leaders left the room, answering questions about broad areas, and some specifics, in the Pinnacle Plan.

In a prepared set of comments, Smith reflected, “I told our staff to re-imagine what our child welfare services could be. The Pinnacle plan was crafted to reach these goals. This is an exciting time for everyone who works in child welfare services.”

Terri White, commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse who acted as DHS Interim director for several weeks, was there in support of Smith’s narrative. State Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, on leave from that post to run DHS until a permanent director is hired this summer to replace Howard Hendrick at the agency’s helm, answered a few fiscal policy questions. 

“Pinnacle Points” numbers one and seven are sketched above. Point 2 envisions reorganization of services into approximately 26 districts, aligned with the state’s District Attorney model. Point 3 aims to bring on another 200 child welfare specialists, 40 supervisors and to aim at the regional average for staff pay. Point 4 aims for the agency to integrate  a “child welfare practice model” aimed at better service to children and families. Point 5 presses use of standardized means of review of work done; while Point 6 intends stricter use of data aligned with federal reporting standards. 

In summary form, the seven points follow: 

1. Expand quality placement options and supports to ensure safety of children in out of home care, reduce utilization of shelter care, and improve placement stability. 
2. Create a system with clear delineation of roles, effective lines of communication and accountability throughout the system.

3.  Increase the number of staff, reduce turnover and continue to improve the experience level and practice competencies of staff responsible for day-to-day work on child welfare cases.

4. Fully integrate the Child Welfare Practice Model into all training, policy, practice and performance expectations of child welfare staff at all levels. 

5. Ensure work is of good quality, be transparent about the outcomes and hold all staff (front line, management, and program) and contractors accountable.

6. Ensure the safety of children in out-of-home care. Ensure children receive regular visitation by the assigned caseworker that focuses on ensuring safety, permanency and well-being outcomes.

7. Engage community partners, other state agencies, the private sector, and Tribes in supporting children and families involved with the child welfare system. [DHS] cannot do it alone.

The agency’s own press release and other detailed information is available here. The 45-page plan itself can be reviewed here