Legislation calling for an independent performance audit of the services provided to children who have been abused or neglected or are in the state's foster care system will be heard this week in committee.
Representative Susan Winchester is the author of House Bill 2748. The bill will require a thorough, nonpartisan review of the Human Services division in the Department of Human Services. A performance audit performed by an outside company, similar to the one recently done for the Corrections Department, would provide an unbiased look at where the system is failing Oklahoma's children, said Republican Winchester of Chickasha.
"I am confident there are some areas where the department is excelling. We want this audit to find and root out the bad practices, but also to elevate and expand what we are doing right," said Winchester.
Lawmakers have been working proactively in recent years to further protect children, said Representative Ron Peters, chairman of the House Human Services Committee. Two years ago, funding increases were made to allow for the hiring of 100 additional caseworkers to help reduce caseloads, but not all of these positions have been filled because of high turnover rates, Peters said.
A recent federal lawsuit was filed against the state of Oklahoma, claiming the state must provide better trained workers and more of them, reduce caseloads, increase foster care rates, and increase the number of foster care homes. These are issues both DHS and the Legislature have already been working to address, said Peters, who is a Republican from Tulsa.
"We don't need an expensive lawsuit that will cost the state millions in legal fees when that money could be going to help these innocent children who have already endured too much in their young lives," said Representative Peters.
The audit would look at the human services division, which includes family support services and children and family services and field operations, which manage the state's area and county caseworker directors.
Representative Kris Steele, chairman of the House Health Subcommittee said increasing salaries for the caseworkers dealing directly with children is critical. Though, in a budget year like this, Steele said finding efficiencies in the department will be essential to reallocate monies to where they are needed the most.
"The most important jobs at the department currently have some of the lowest salaries," said Steele, who is a Republican from Shawnee. "We have to do all we can to reduce the turnover rate among these workers, including getting them the internal support and mentoring they need."
Eventually the goal will be to have an audit of the full department, Winchester said, but this division is the one working most directly with children, and is therefore the most dire.
House Bill 2748 is set to be heard in the House Human Services Committee on Thursday.