By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — State workers who deal daily with Oklahomans with developmental disabilities and abused and neglected children should be targeted for merit-based pay hikes, the head of a House budget panel said on Tuesday.
Following a joint House and Senate budget committee hearing, Rep. Jason Nelson said pay increases for workers in the child welfare, developmental disabilities and family support divisions of the Department of Human Services will be among his top priorities for the largest state agency, which had a budget of more than $600 million last year.
"The lack of a pay raise for the last six years is really hurting the ability of the agency to hire and retain the kind of people we need to do these really difficult jobs," said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City.
Funding for the 7,200-employee agency has been a challenge for state lawmakers, who last year boosted DHS' budget by about $50 million, half of which was to comply of a settlement agreement with a child advocacy group that sued over the treatment of children in state custody.
As part of the settlement, the state also developed the so-called Pinnacle Plan, which calls for massive changes in the way the agency handles children in its care, including increasing the number of child-welfare workers, reducing case loads and increase reimbursement rates for foster and adoptive parents.
The plan is estimated to cost about $100 million annually when fully implemented over the next five years, but Nelson said he believes that figure can be reduced if lawmakers focus on hiring and properly training child-welfare workers upfront.
"If you start having a more robust workforce that's better trained, they're able to really focus on a smaller caseload so they can make more strategic decisions ... and you're going to see fewer kids coming into state custody," Nelson said.
DHS officials briefed lawmakers on progress they've made toward the goals in the Pinnacle Plan, including no longer placing children under 2 years old in shelters overnight, recruiting nearly 960 new foster care families and plans to hire 100 new child-welfare workers by the end of January.
Lawmakers also received an update on a decision by the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services in November to close two state facilities for Oklahoma's most severely developmentally disabled residents.
The decision drew a bitter reaction from many of the parents and guardians of the roughly 230 residents at the centers in Enid and Pauls Valley, who will be moved to community-based homes over the next two years.
Jim Nicholson, director of the agency's Developmental Disabilities Services Division, said each of the residents will be assigned a case manager and each placement must be approved by the agency's Office of Client Advocacy.
"Our approach is to go very slowly, to make this as friendly as possible for the parents, guardians and family members," Nicholson said. "I think it will be successful."
Shortly after the commission voted to close the two centers, Oklahoma voters approved a state question in November to abolish the nine-member commission that had governed the agency for decades. Under a law approved by lawmakers last year, the agency now will be governed by four separate advisory panels that will oversee the four key agency divisions: child welfare, developmental disabilities services, aging services and administration.
Another major change at the agency involves the hiring of its new director, Ed Lake, who told lawmakers Tuesday that his hiring in October is just one of many major changes for DHS over the last year.
"I don't think I've seen an organization go through such sweeping and fundamental changes in just the last year, especially in the last six months," Lake said.