Oklahoma state budget cuts put strain on Adult Protective Services
JENKS — When Jana Gildon lost her job at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services due to budget cuts, she was one of just four state workers tasked with investigating abuse, neglect and exploitation at long-term care facilities like nursing homes.
Gildon's job was one of about 100 DHS positions that were eliminated in August. The layoffs were part of $45 million in funding cuts for the 2017 fiscal year that DHS was forced to implement due to a more than $100-million shortfall at the agency amid state budget cuts.
"People are losing their jobs even after years with the state because our Legislature and governor have not handled our budget very well," Gildon said.
Over the past two fiscal years, DHS has had to slash 1,200 positions outside of child welfare due to budget cuts. Those cuts were made through buyout offers and reductions in force
As a DHS investigator, Gildon handled complaints of mostly "staff-on resident abuse," ranging from a nursing home worker turning off a resident's call button to neglect so severe residents were covered in bedsores.
Since Gildon lost her job, there are only three DHS investigators to cover complaints at long-term care facilities for the entire state.
"I think the only way it could be done is to screen out a lot of complaints — I think we have been understaffed for a long time," Gildon said.
Job lost after 18 years
- Related to this story
- Article: It's not just teachers; Oklahoma state employees seek higher pay
Because nobody from her department accepted a buyout offer and other employees had seniority over her, Gildon lost her job after 18 years of service as a nursing home investigator, and 22 years of service overall with the state.
DHS plans to request supplemental funding from the state to avoid further cutting services, but has yet to submit a formal request, said Sheree Powell, a spokeswoman for the agency.
While DHS is still hiring Child Protective Services workers, other areas of service including adult protective services, caseworkers for the developmentally disabled, and child care licensing employees have seen staffing levels cut over the past several years, Powell said.
"It's definitely had a huge impact on our programs, which serve some of Oklahoma's most vulnerable residents," Powell said. "We've lost staff in every program area."
Adult Protective Services cuts
Adult Protective Services is one part of the agency that has seen its budget cut to avoid reducing services to protect children from abuse and neglect.
While Adult Protective Services divisions in many other states only protect seniors, Oklahoma law gives DHS jurisdiction over all vulnerable adults over age 18.
The division receives about 20,000 calls a year regarding the abuse or neglect of vulnerable adults. About half of those calls are for "self-neglect" — people who don't seem to be able to take care of themselves because of aging, illness or some kind of mental disability. Other complaints range from sexual and physical abuse to neglect or financial exploitation.
Adult Protective Services is now faced with fielding those complaints with fewer resources. The program saw a $2.9 million budget cut for the current fiscal year, about a 22 percent funding cut.
Adult Protective Services had a total budget, including federal and state funding, of about $11.8 million for the 2016 fiscal year.
The division has eliminated 46 full-time positions from its staff over the past two years, a roughly 24 percent cut from a staff of 190 two years ago.
Just a few years ago, the division that covers nursing homes that Gildon worked for had five full-time investigators, and another part-time investigator.
Since the latest round of cuts, the three remaining investigators have seen their caseloads increase by an average of 30 percent, said Gail Wettstein, director of Adult Protective Services for DHS.
"This is very emotionally difficult work," Wettstein said. "The people who are called to this work and stay in this work are deeply committed to helping their clients. It's been extremely stressful on all of the divisions."
In 2015, the division investigated about 299 cases of abuse and neglect at nursing homes and 396 cases in 2014.
Response time delays
Because of the cuts, DHS expects delays in response times to calls about abuse of seniors in nursing homes, Wettstein said.
Investigators also have been asked to reduce their travel expenses and some issues are now handled via phone when possible.
Adult Protective Services also has had to make the decision to stop preparing criminal cases of financial exploitation of vulnerable adults for prosecution because of the funding cuts.
While the agency once contracted with a forensic accountant to investigate cases of financial exploitation, it's simply something DHS can no longer afford, Wettstein said.
The agency now only works to substantiate claims of financial abuse before handing cases over to the district attorney's office or police to further investigate, the minimum DHS is required to do by state law.
"There have been cases where we have exceeded our statutory mandate to investigate cases to get justice for our clients, but government is strapped for resources and just can't do that anymore," Wettstein said.
While Adult Protective Services once had a physical presence in 55 of 77 counties, that has been reduced to 50 now.
"Could it take four days for us to respond instead of three? Yes. Could it take five days instead of three? Yes," Wettstein said. "Could people be concerned that Adult Protective Services wasn't there on day one? Yes."
Full retirement lost
After more than 20 years of service with the state, Gildon lost out on her full retirement benefits by being forced to retire three years early.
While Gildon received a severance package, she said she still feels short changed on her retirement benefits from the state.
After making the decision to purchase additional service time at the cost of $12,000 to keep more of her retirement benefits, she still only receives about 76 percent of her state pension, about 40 percent of what she was making before losing her job.
"It was like nobody cares," Gildon said. "There was no appreciation for a job well done and the service provided for all of those years."
Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said he fears that because the Oklahoma Legislature used about $600 million in one-time funds to plug its gaping $1.3 billion budget hole this fiscal year, DHS and other state agencies will face even deeper cuts in the 2018 budget year.
Oklahoma had 1,265 fewer state employees as of Oct. 18 than it did on April 20, 2015, as many state agencies look to shrink staffing levels due to budget cuts, according to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
Those numbers include full and part time positions, as well as state workers who left by attrition, but have not been replaced.
Some state employees have not seen a pay increase in eight years, and also face increases to health insurance costs and the larger workloads that come with budget cuts, Zearley said.
"DHS is doing the best they can under the circumstances," he said. "What is frustrating to us is the lack of funding from the legislature and the lack of efforts to raise revenues for core services."