Oklahoma City -- The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) has submitted a first draft of an improvement plan (.pdf, 84 pp, 3.0 MB) for its child welfare program to a panel of three child welfare experts who will be monitoring the state’s improvements over the next five years. The plan is part of a settlement agreement reached in January 2012 in the D.G. vs. Yarbrough class action, civil rights lawsuit. OKDHS agreed in the settlement to make targeted performance improvements related to the way it cares for children in foster care.
“We are pleased with this plan and believe it addresses the 15 identified areas of improvement, the anticipated costs, and the agency organizational changes as defined in the settlement agreement,” said Preston Doerflinger, OKDHS interim director.
Since the settlement, OKDHS has been developing the improvement plan with the assistance of the outside child welfare experts (referred to as co-neutrals), Human Services Commissioners, representatives from the Governor’s office and state legislature, as well as key external stakeholders.
“This plan is the result of a historic collaborative effort between OKDHS, the Governor, the legislature, and other partners who have a stake in child welfare services,” said Brad Yarbrough, Chairman of the Human Services Commission. “We look forward to receiving feedback from the co-neutrals on this plan and continuing our work to improve the child welfare system in Oklahoma.”
The development of the plan included holding summits across the state with OKDHS child welfare staff and key external stakeholders to solicit ideas about how to improve the system.
“Our staff chose to name the plan, “The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan,” as the term reflects their goals to reach the highest point possible in the state’s child welfare program,” said Deborah Smith, Director of the Children and Family Services Division. “I told our staff to reimagine 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.”
The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan is divided into seven “Pinnacle Points” which relate to the 15 areas of improvement identified in the settlement agreement. Under each Pinnacle Point are strategies and initiatives to achieve the improvements.
The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan: An Improvement Plan for Child Welfare services
Pinnacle Point 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.
Recruitment of Foster Families
One of the most critical areas for improvement in the child welfare program is having an adequate number of foster parents. Improvement in this area is so critical that it crosses each of the identified performance areas. These improvements will require long-term cultural changes in how OKDHS interacts with foster parents and how the general public and local communities view foster parenting.
If the right family match is made for each and every child, Oklahoma will see a reduction in abuse and neglect in care, placement instability, use of shelter care, failed adoptions, and older youth aging out of the system without a permanent family.
Initiatives in the plan, spread out over the next five years, would include more partnerships with private foster care and child placement agencies and dedicating more OKDHS staff whose primary focus is the recruitment, retention and support of foster families. Other goals in the plan include reducing the amount of time it takes to complete home studies and increasing the reimbursement rate for foster parents to bring their compensation more in line with national standards.
By the end of the first year implementing the plan, Oklahoma needs 500 additional non-relative foster homes to help improve all of these areas and to focus efforts on getting young children out of shelters. Oklahoma also needs an increase in Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) homes to keep youth closer to their families and out of congregate care.
Reducing the reliance on shelters—
Children need to be with families and not in buildings. OKDHS will focus the agency’s initial efforts on reducing shelter care for children under the age of six. The initiatives in the plan include recruiting a more diverse pool of foster homes, shelter host homes and resources to ensure that no child under the age of 6 has to spend the night in a shelter. In the second year of the plan, OKDHS will work to improve placement processes to minimize the amount of time children of all ages spend in shelters.
When the right match is made between a child and foster family, the placement will be much more stable and less likely to fail. Initiatives in the plan call for an increase in meetings between foster families and biological families to open and improve the lines of communication. Initiatives in years two and three would include refined trauma screenings of children and specialized training for foster parents working with traumatized children. OKDHS will also increase the number of family team meetings to reduce the need for children to move between placements.
Pinnacle Point 2--Create a system with clear delineation of roles, effective lines of communication and accountability throughout the system.
Structural and Organizational Changes
The current organizational structure of child welfare services separates field staff from program staff. The recommendation is for a vertically integrated division. This organizational structure will fully empower and support the front-line child welfare workers and supervisors while increasing accountability.
The reorganization would mean redistricting the state into approximately 26 districts, similar to the current District Attorney Model. Each district would have one child welfare district director to be aligned with the District Attorney, providing more opportunities and an increased expectation of improving relationships and teamwork. Because of the volume of work, the larger metro areas would be more than a one-to-one match with DAs and District Directors but there would be increased relationship building and improved teamwork.
Pinnacle Point 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.
Caseworker turnover, in particular, is of concern in Oklahoma. Child welfare staff leaving the agency, who responded to a survey, described their supervisors as very supportive and the work as rewarding, but describe unreasonable work demands, low pay, low morale and a negative image of the agency as reasons for leaving. Most report they would consider returning to OKDHS if these working conditions changed.
The real problems identified were high turnover and difficulty defining reasonable workload.
Initiatives in the plan call for setting a standard for manageable caseloads for each type of child welfare worker. The plan calls for an external workload study which will help to determine the number of child welfare workers needed. Based on an internal workload analysis, OKDHS estimates 200 additional child welfare specialist positions will be needed during the first two years and 40 additional child welfare supervisors.
The agency will also develop: a new tracking system for counting and assigning work which would take into account staff experience and complexity of cases; a certification program for child welfare workers; an intensive training program for child welfare supervisors; and, improve the processes for selecting workers and supervisors by incorporating realistic job previews and selection factors.
Over a 5-year period, OKDHS will increase the pay for child welfare staff to reach regional averages.
Pinnacle Pont 4--Fully integrate the Child Welfare Practice Model into all training, policy, practice and performance expectations of child welfare staff at all levels.
Oklahoma’s practice model is built on safety of children, family engagement, and critical thinking. These three fundamental areas link to all of the performance improvement areas. By fully implementing the practice model, OKDHS will continue improving engagement of families through initial meetings, family team meetings, ongoing assessment, and transition planning. It is only by engaging everyone close to the child and family that we will find the most appropriate permanency option for a child and help that child and family prepare for the future.
Pinnacle Point 5—Ensure work is of good quality, be transparent about the outcomes and hold all staff (front line, management, and program) and contractors accountable.
Quality assurance systems are designed to improve practice, clearly define roles and responsibilities, and diagnose what is working, and what is not. This plan outlines several initiatives over the next two years which include the development of a performance quality assurance team and the use of standardized quality service reviews for casework.
Pinnacle Point 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.
Over the next three years, the plan calls for changes in the Office of Client Advocacy (OCA) investigative process as it relates to the child welfare program and for incorporating abuse data from OCA investigations into federal reporting. Other initiatives include: ensuring the same worker is responsible for and visits the children on their caseload; requiring group home providers to be trained in caring for children who experience trauma, and instituting a system-wide approach to lessons learned from abuse and neglect in care.
Pinnacle Point 7--Engage community partners, other state agencies, the private sector, and Tribes in supporting children and families involved with the child welfare system. OKDHS cannot do it alone.
Prevention of child abuse and neglect requires a network of concerned advocates, Tribes, other state agencies, private non-profits, and faith-based organizations to provide supports for struggling families. In the recruitment and support of foster families, the private sector may sometimes be able to engage a constituency that is less accessible to the public sector.
Initiatives in the plan include expanding Comprehensive Home-Based Services (CHBS) statewide and improving support to kinship foster families. The plan also calls for building higher-level collaborations with the State Advisory Board for Improving Services, the State Department of Health, Youth Services Agencies, and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
The Next Steps
Once the plan is approved by the co-neutrals, OKDHS will begin implementing the initiatives in July 2012. The settlement agreement calls for the state to make “good faith efforts” in meeting the goals of the plan. The first fiscal year cost of implementing the plan is just under $30 million new state dollars. OKDHS will request the estimated funds needed each fiscal year.
"Co-Neutrals" Comment on OKDHS Draft Pinnacle Plan
OKDHS Pinnacle Plan Topic of April Lecture Series