It has not been a good year for the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), as the agency has been rocked by the discovery of widespread financial mismanagement and neglect, followed by the resignation of several agency leaders. As was widely reported, tens of millions of dollars were shifted from federal grants to state programs, a clear conflict with potential legal concerns. Even more frustrating, the redirection appears to have been unnecessary; it was later discovered that other agency accounts held enough state dollars to cover costs without the improper use of federal funds.
Bringing this agency into compliance and restoring accountability will likely be a priority for all lawmakers and will require a significant investment to modernize the agency’s accounting system, which is apparently hopelessly outdated and ineffective. While that is certainly necessary, it is important not to let other key priorities fall by the wayside, especially projects that support children and families or that fund preventative measures that protect families from hardship or tragedy.
Since the turnover in administration, I am pleased that interim Director Tom Bates, former special advisor to Governor Fallin on DHS issues, has helped “right the ship” with many agency directives and restored a clear focus to their mission. For instance, OSDH has said they will restore $2 million dollars in funding for the Office of Child Abuse Prevention (OCAP) for State Fiscal Year (SFY) 2019. Funding had been cut by former agency leadership from the SFY 2018 budget, terminating contracts with partner organizations involved in the Parents as Teachers (PAT) home visiting program. OCAP funding meets a requirement for state mandated services related to child abuse prevention programs.
As Interim OSDH Commissioner Tom Bates said when he announced his intent to restore funding, “(OSDH) must focus on delivering core public health services and fulfill mandates required by the Legislature. This is an important piece of our statewide effort in child abuse prevention.”
OSDH currently provides assistance to families in targeted areas, through the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) grant. MIECHV funds support three home visiting models: Children First (Oklahoma’s Nurse Family Partnership program), PAT and SafeCare Augmented. The OCAP funding provides the opportunity to serve families across the state who may not meet the eligibility requirements for other models.
According to Beth Martin, interim director for OSDH Family Support and Prevention Service, “OCAP contracts are just one part of our overall effort to prevent child abuse. A continuum of services including the Parents as Teachers program, allows us (OSDH) to reach families that might otherwise fall through the cracks.”
In SFY 2017, Parents as Teachers contractors served 608 families in 26 counties. The temporary termination of this program was felt by all those families, as well as others it could have served. We at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy applaud the decision to restore funding and reboot these services. If we are truly going to move out of the basement for rankings which measure child wellbeing and quality of life, it will take a collaborative effort between the government, these private programs and the families which want to see improvement.