- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Republican Gov. Mary Fallin named former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins on Thursday as her special adviser on child welfare and implementation of a plan to improve the state’s foster care system.

Askins, a former lieutenant governor who lost the 2010 gubernatorial election to Fallin, will oversee implementation of the Pinnacle Plan, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ five-year effort to reform the state’s child welfare system.

“I’ve named Jari to this new, top-level role to bolster the effort to improve child welfare services and add her expertise to a priority issue,” Fallin said. “Jari is a universally respected leader who has made child welfare one of her top priorities throughout her long career in public service.”

Askins, interim executive director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board who will begin her new role in Fallin’s administration Monday, said she is “excited about the opportunity” and that implementation of the Pinnacle Plan will be a “huge task.”

The Pinnacle Plan was developed in 2012 as part of the settlement agreement in a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in 2008 by the New York-based child advocacy group Children’s Rights over the treatment of children in state custody. Among other things, the plan includes placing all children younger than two in a family-like setting rather than a group shelter, developing a training program for DHS supervisors and increasing the number of foster parents. It also includes increasing reimbursement payments to foster parents and raising the salaries of child welfare specialists.

At the time the settlement was reached, officials said the plan would cost about $153 million to implement.

DHS Director Ed Lake praised the timing of Fallin’s appointment of Askins.

“Over the past six months we have gained momentum in several key areas of the Pinnacle Plan,” Lake said. “We want to seize this opportunity to continue to build upon that progress.”

Askins emphasized improving state services to children as both lieutenant governor and a gubernatorial candidate. Askins described implementation of the Pinnacle Plan as “a work in progress” and said that while officials have made some strides, more work is needed.

“There are clearly some issues related to the court settlement and the expectations of the governor and the Legislature and DHS. I don’t think any of them feel like they’re successful yet,” Askins said. “I look forward to learning from them and try to use my experience to help them make Oklahoma a better place for Oklahoma’s children.”

Former Oklahoma Highway Patrol Chief Van M. Guillotte will take over as the Pardon and Parole Board’s new director, Askins said.

Askins, a native of Duncan, has served in all three branches of state government. She passed up seeking re-election as lieutenant governor to run for governor in 2010. Askins, 61, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1994 and served for 12 years, her last two as Democratic Leader. Askins has also served as a Stephens County special judge and as a member of the Pardon and Parole Board, which elected her as its first female chairman.

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