OPEA members are encouraged to talk to their legislators about the dangers of privatizing child welfare in Oklahoma. OPEA testified against this corporate takeover of a critical state function at the House Interim Study on Child Welfare Privatization in September.
Corporations Take Aim at Child Welfare
Stating unequivocally his purpose for addressing the Interim Study committee, Chuck Boien, representing Providence Services Corporation, said “My purpose for addressing you today is to advocate for the privatization of child welfare services in Oklahoma including the outsourcing of the case management function and hopefully to present some successful solutions…”
The interim study committee, made up of members of the House of Representatives, gathered to reopen the idea of privatizing child welfare, an idea being pushed by Representative Gus Blackwell, R-Guymon and Senator Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa.
State funding for the division, approximately $117 million this fiscal year, would have to double, based on figures from Kansas and Florida, the only states that have totally privatized child welfare services. Thirteen states have privatized some portion of their case management services.
Debra Smith, director of the DHS Children and Family Services Division, estimated that DHS already contracts out approximately 25 percent of foster care services with private vendors.
About 30 OPEA members from DHS attended the meeting and wore stickers against privatizing child welfare management services. OPEA was the only organization representing state employees to provide opposition to selling off this critical state service.
OPEA deputy director Scott Barger told the committee that DHS employees are making great strides in improving the system and should be allowed to continue with the reforms.
“You (legislators) have asked child welfare workers to deliver improved results and they have,” he said. “3,700 less kids in custody, a decrease in shelter populations and length of stay, lowest number of children per worker in many years, and a 24-hour hotline. Our workers also outpace the nation in kinship foster care placement and rank in the top five nationally in moving kids to permanency. And, we still have room for these reforms to grow.”
Barger went on to say that the child welfare workers who filled the room were responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of Oklahoma children.
“Mr. Chairman, heroes are often honored at the Capitol for various reasons,” he said. “In this room we are privileged to sit among many heroes who have saved the lives of hundreds of Oklahoma’s children. We owe them our thanks–we owe them our support.”
Marq Youngblood, chief operating officer for DHS, said privatization would not save money. It is a complicated and massive challenge, and just because it may work in one state does not mean it would be successful in Oklahoma.
OPEA member Stephanie Stone, a 13-year DHS child welfare worker from Oklahoma City, told the panel that HB 1734 should be given time.
We’re seeing a lot of progress,” she said. “To pull the plug now and go to privatization, I think, would spell disaster for our children and our families.”
“With the practice model implementation we are seeing fewer children being brought into the system and our numbers have dropped in Tulsa County,” Tulsa County OPEA member and nine-year DHS employee Hilary Haines-Devlin told the committee. “We are seeing much less incident-based issues and more safety planning, more family-centered services and it is successful. To change this now would be detrimental to the successes we are having.”
Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Guymon, said he plans to again file legislation next session that would form a task force to look into child welfare services.
Rep. Peters said he is heartened that DHS has made improvements in child welfare services since his legislation, House Bill 1734, passed last year. DHS has continued to increase worker retention, brought down its daily shelter population, reduced the number of children in out-of-home care, and achieved a record level of adoptions, he said.
HB 1734 came from the recommendations of $420,000 Hornby Zeller audit of DHS. Peters said he would like legislators to consider other recommendations of the audit.
“We seem to be getting the same results with less money,” he said. “We need to be cautious about this,” said Peters.
OPEA members present at the interim study met after the meeting to discuss their concerns regarding the testimony presented at the meeting.
“If we are going to stop this it is going to take all of us, said Hilary Haines. “We can’t depend on the people above us to fight for us when we won’t fight for ourselves.”
“I think OPEA members/child welfare workers need to meet with legislators to explain specifically what progress we are already making in child welfare,” stated OPEA member Whitney Rowland. “There was a lot of talk on the opposing side about their efforts on the ‘front end’ and in prevention. These are things we are already putting a major focus on and has led to a fewer number of kids taken into custody, which in turn has led to lower case loads.”
OPEA will be working extensively with child welfare workers in the coming months to help them get their message out to their communities and legislators. OPEA meetings will be held across the state with elected officials and child welfare workers to discuss the current improvements in Oklahoma’s child welfare system.
OPEA members will also be contacting local media outlets to voice their concerns. All OPEA members are encouraged to join the fight for child welfare jobs. If you are interested in having a meeting in your office please contact OPEA Membership Representative Haley Blood at firstname.lastname@example.org.