William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun
It has been said that one of the measures that can be used to judge a society is the way it treats its most vulnerable members. And the treatment that the state of Oklahoma has given to vulnerable children that have been entrusted to the care of the state Department of Human Services has been a source of controversy in recent years and was the subject of a federal lawsuit that alleged DHS had failed to adequately care for those children.
Deborah Smith is the director of the Children Services Division of DHS, and she recently gave a presentation at the Oklahoma District Attorney Council’s Office in Oklahoma City about the plan that is being implemented to improve the state’s child welfare system.
That plan, which is known as the “Pinnacle Plan,” was entered into by DHS as part of the settlement the department reached to end the federal lawsuit. July 1 of last year was the date the program was officially put in place, and it had previously been submitted to and approved by two out-of-state child care experts known as the “co-neutrals” who had to approve it in accordance with the settlement that had been agreed upon.
Smith, who has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma, explained the DHS division that she now heads was created as part of that plan. The plan also created what is known as the “Child Welfare Services executive team,” which oversees 27 “Oklahoma District Directors” throughout the state, and Smith explained that each of those directors will be part of a management team that includes seven front-line employees that are assigned to Child Protective Services, Family Centered Services, and Permanency Planning. The team also includes five deputy directors.
Those office holders’ duties will include traveling to the individual county DHS offices that are in their districts to ensure that the services being provided to children are adequate. Smith explained that over the next several months all of the DHS staff who work with children will receive training and support that will allow them to improve the services that are provided.
In addition, the plan authorized the creation and funding for 100 new child welfare specialist positions, and also increased the salary of those employees who are already employed as child welfare workers. A “competency assessment” has been performed on those new employees before they were assigned a caseload, and it is planned that in time caseloads of each child welfare employee will decrease.
Smith said that ensuring the safety of children is the paramount concern. The department had been criticized for the small number of foster homes and the use of child shelters to house children who had been placed in its custody, and Smith reported that there has been an increase of 116 family foster homes that provide care for some of those children since July of last year. The number of children in shelters has decreased as well.
The monthly stipends received by foster families for the care that they provide to children has been increased in accordance with the plan. Pursuant to the plan, the department issued a “Request for Proposal” for a public-private partnership to encourage the development of foster homes. Smith said that she is committed to insuring that the children entrusted to the department’s care are adequately cared for, and also to working with the district attorneys, courts, law enforcement officials and other community partners who are part of the Oklahoma child welfare system.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.