November 1 is the time when new laws in Oklahoma traditionally take effect. This year as we approach this date we have a legislature in special session because there is no budget. We’ve seen news reporting about the budget crisis, shortfalls in funding to the state, and the planned decrease in services.
Not long ago, it was announced that there would be deep cuts in services to the Department of Human Services and the Department of Mental Health. At one point it was reported that a budget deal could be reached if parties would agree to a statewide ban on abortion. Politics of abortion aside, such a law is clearly unconstitutional under the existing laws of the United States. The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue and the states cannot ban abortion. Period. It can be limited but it cannot be banned. I do not understand why our government must stall the process of governing to insist on passing bills that those in charge know from the outset will fail. Just yesterday the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay on a law aimed at drunk driving reform because there are constitutional challenges to the law.
The last few weeks the news has been full of reports on the failings of DHS. A foster baby died from what is likely shaken baby syndrome. The baby was shaken just a day after being placed in the foster family’s care. A foster mother stands accused of beating and starving four children. On October 23, 2017 a story ran in the Oklahoman regarding a child who died after DHS closed its investigation. One of the DHS employees in the investigation then spoke out to the media afterwards explaining that DHS did not tell the entire story.
Budgets are down. Agencies are understaffed and overworked. In 2008 a civil rights lawsuit was filed against DHS that resulted in the creation of a plan of reform in DHS. That document is called the Pinnacle Plan. The purpose was to fix problems in the foster care system. Except the Pinnacle Plan is not being followed.
DHS in Oklahoma County alone has about 1/5 of the staff that it needs to investigate child welfare claims. Child service workers are only supposed to have 12 cases per worker. I know of one team that has only 3 of the 5 child welfare worker slots filled. Pursuant to the Pinnacle Plan that team can only work 36 investigations. Yet that team has over 100 active cases assigned to it. That is approximately 3 times the allowed number of cases per worker. This is the “team” that was disciplined for the death of a child after DHS closed its investigation. This is the team that was disciplined after the supervisor said we need to take these kids into protective custody. This is the team where the District Director vetoed the decision of the workers in the filed to protect the children. This is the team that was accused of failing children by DHS but the leaders at DHS did not shoulder any of the blame or the failing Was this a failure of the team in the field or the leader who pushed to close cases? Oklahomans need to decide.
Leadership at DHS has been advised that the DHS child protective workers overworked and underpaid. Leadership has been advised that there are workers who are developing drug and alcohol problems as a result of the extreme stress that they are placed under in trying to help the families who need help protecting their kids. Recently a DHS worker was arrested for showing up on a call under the influence. The response from Leadership was to refer to the employee assistance program. I don’t see this as leadership at a key agency charged with protecting the most vulnerable. I also see Leadership passing the buck and disciplining those who speak out against them for their failings instead of stepping up and appreciating the criticism.
We have a crisis in Oklahoma. There is without a doubt a budget crisis. Tax revenue is down and we give cut after cut in taxes to corporations but raise dollars on the backs of our hard working citizens. But even more than a budget crisis in Oklahoma, is a Leadership crisis in Oklahoma.
We have elected and appointed officials who do not represent the interests of their constituents. We have elected and appointed officials who push their own agenda rather than developing law that we know will stand up to constitutional challenges. When did we become a society so concerned with placating everyone that we get nothing done?
Regardless of which side of the political aisle we are sitting on, our state needs Leadership that will stand up and protect our citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones in society. While the Legislature remains in special session trying to resolve the latest budget problem, I encourage all Oklahomans to contact their State Senator or Representative to make your voice heard on the issues that affect you and to be the change you want to see in the system.
Now more than ever is the time for our elected leaders to stand up and LEAD for what is right, what is fair and what is just. Now is the time for the politicians to remember that they represent people. People like you and me who raise children, pay taxes, own businesses and want to see the best in our society.