The expert monitors overseeing implementation of the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Pinnacle Plan to improve Oklahoma’s foster care system have agreed to a joint request of the department and counsel to the children to extend the timeline to fully implement the agency’s reform efforts.
In 2012, DHS settled a class-action lawsuit filed against its foster care system and agreed to make improvements in targeted areas within that system. The settlement agreement established an ambitious five-year plan to improve performance in critical areas such as reducing the use of emergency shelters for young children, increasing the numbers of foster families, increasing the numbers of caseworkers, reducing caseworker workloads, and reducing the rate of maltreatment (abuse and neglect) in care.
The co-neutrals, a group of three child welfare experts, will continue to monitor the department’s progress, provide it with technical assistance, and require additional specific action steps where necessary.
DHS Director Ed Lake says the settlement agreement represents a unique approach to achieving system reform.
“An effort like this has never been tried anywhere. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the timelines and initiatives laid out four years ago in the Pinnacle Plan were overly optimistic given the challenges we faced. Nevertheless, substantial progress has been made and we are seeing the benefits of the plan’s scope.
“The state of Oklahoma has invested more than $150 million into funding reforms since the beginning of the Pinnacle Plan,” said Lake. “The increased funding has allowed our agency to add more than 800 new case workers and supervisors to the child welfare work force, reduce workloads and increase their salaries; recruit and approve more than 3,000 new foster families and increase their reimbursement rates; and, significantly reduce the use of emergency shelters for kids. Despite our progress, however, we are going to need more time to reach and sustain all of our goals.”
Jami Ledoux, director of DHS Child Welfare Services since 2015, says every member of the Child Welfare Services staff has been focused on implementing the Pinnacle Plan. “These intensive efforts will continue so that we may ensure those kids who need to come into DHS care remain safe and return as quickly as possible to their own family, an adoptive family, or some other stable setting,” she said.
Frederick Dorwart, co-counsel to the children, said, “We are pleased with the department’s commitment to meeting all the Pinnacle Plan goals. The extension recognizes a more realistic time frame for achieving the goals, continues the important contribution of the co-neutrals to the department’s operations, and acknowledges the interest of our state leaders in the success of the Pinnacle Plan.”
Marcia Lowry, director of A Better Childhood, commented, “On behalf of the plaintiff class, we appreciate that the state acknowledges more time and effort is necessary to institute and maintain meaningful protections for Oklahoma's vulnerable foster children, and to address remaining challenges."
State leaders outside DHS have demonstrated a significant interest in the Pinnacle Plan. Concerted efforts have been expended to find the funding and support needed to implement the plan’s initiatives.
Governor Mary Fallin views the extension as a means to better ensure the time and resources already dedicated to the Pinnacle Plan result in the dividends everyone seeks.
“This extension will help Oklahoma and DHS work to strengthen child welfare services and to realistically meet and stabilize Pinnacle Plan goals,” said Fallin. “I continue to support DHS and offer any assistance I can as it strives to implement the Pinnacle Plan. As I have said previously, the success of these reforms is critical to ensuring the state can provide adequate protection and care to vulnerable Oklahoma children.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was actively involved in negotiating the 2012 settlement and has paid close attention to the agency’s progress ever since.
“We recognize the importance of making sure DHS improves the foster care system,” said Pruitt, “but we need to make sure these improvements have a permanent and positive impact. If a reasonable amount of additional time is needed to ensure that these improvements result in better outcomes for our foster kids, both now and in the future, then that is exactly what needs to happen.”
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