OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first in a series of Child Welfare Summits was held Tuesday in Lawton with OKDHS staff to gather recommendations for the improvement plan being developed as part of a settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit. Over the next week, five more summits will be held with child welfare staff around the state to get their input on how to make improvements to 15 performance areas identified in the agreement.
The class action, civil rights lawsuit was filed against the state's foster care system in 2008 by the advocacy group, Children's Rights, Inc. The OKDHS Director, Commission and Children's Rights agreed on terms to settle the lawsuit in December and signed the agreement in early January. The agreement was also approved by the Contingency Review Board, consisting of the Governor, Senate President Pro Temp and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Deborah Smith, Director of the Children and Family Services Division (CFSD), conducted the summit in Lawton. Smith will also meet with field and program staff in Muskogee, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Enid and Ada.
"We are embarking on a really important journey in child welfare," Smith told the summit attendees. "We want to engage you in crafting this plan, so think about what you want to do differently to improve child welfare in Oklahoma."
Smith noted that this is a time of anxiety among many employees but it is also a time to "dream big" and better serve the children and families in the state.
In her presentation, Smith discussed the specifics of the lawsuit settlement agreement and provided some background information on the co-neutrals - three outside child welfare experts who will oversee the development of the plan and implementation of improvements to the state's foster care system.
Kathleen Noonan is a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School
Kevin Ryan is a former Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families
Eileen Crummy is a former child welfare worker in New Jersey and is currently a partner in Public Catalyst, a New Jersey firm that partners with children and families involved in child welfare
Ryan and Crummy are both monitors of the Michigan federal child welfare judicial consent decree. Noonan and Ryan helped OKDHS reach its settlement agreement with Children's Rights.
The performance areas that have been targeted for improvement are abuse and neglect of children in care, the number of foster homes available for both therapeutic and traditional care, visitation by caseworkers, continuity of visitation by the same caseworker, placement stability, children in shelters, permanency, adoption and caseloads.
The feedback collected at the summits will be shared with OKDHS staff, the OKDHS Commission, the co-neutrals, legislative leaders and the Governor's office. Smith told the group in Lawton that the final presentation will be modified as input is collected from the six summit meetings.
"Employees are integral to the successful implementation of changes in policy and practices and must be kept informed throughout our planning process with clear, open and honest communication," said Smith. "We cannot destroy their trust or morale while working on restructuring. We are all working toward the same goal, which is to improve our ability to keep vulnerable adults and children safe."
Smith said an OKDHS work group of division leaders holds weekly meetings so they can support the Children and Family Services Division throughout this process and communicate progress to all OKDHS staff. OKDHS officials and commissioners also facilitate weekly meetings with a work group consisting of representatives from the Governor's Office, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Foster Care Task Force, the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, Indian Child Welfare and the Oklahoma Department of Health. This group will also be involved in the development of the improvement plan.
Following the summit meetings, a first draft of the new plan will be submitted for review to the OKDHS Office of Finance on March 10. Once the plan is finalized, it will be presented to the co-neutrals. If they do not approve the plan, OKDHS will have 30 days to submit a second version. If that second version is not approved, the co-neutrals will write the plan.
After Smith's presentation in Lawton, the attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss the performance areas that call for improvement. A real sense of energy permeated the group discussions as a variety of ideas and suggestions were voiced.
"We have creative staff who are committed to excellence and to improving outcomes for the families they serve," Smith said. "They are eager to share their ideas and we believe they, as a group, will bring creative solutions to the table for consideration."
With feedback coming from both internal and external groups, Smith said the last day to receive any feedback for the plan will be Feb. 29.
She thanked caseworkers for their dedication and noted that the work they do is often very difficult. She stressed to the entire group in attendance that OKDHS is committed to this plan and that child welfare workers are not alone in the agency-wide effort to improve its service to children and families in Oklahoma.