Enough is Enough

Column Series Title: Reforming DHS
By Rep. Mike Sanders

Oklahomans have had enough of the Department of Human Services failing again and again to provide safety to children in our state. The number of deaths and other incidents that have occurred on their watch is truly sickening.

The death of Serenity Deal, a 5-year-old who was placed in her violent biological father’s care at the recommendation of DHS has cranked up the intensity of scrutiny the agency is under. The agency was slow to respond to the death, but eventually succumbed to pressure and fired some of the workers involved in the case.

Unfortunately, it remains to be seen how far up the chain of the command the blame lies. Furthermore, the Serenity Deal case is only one example of a much broader pattern of mistakes associated with the DHS agency. A Sept. 18, 2011 story by Tulsa World reporter Ginnie Graham outlined more than 20 cases of child death and abuse under DHS custody. These were cases DHS settled in response to a lawsuit, meaning that they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the agency dropping the ball. In fact, I have reason to believe that there are an atrocious number of cases where DHS fails to adequately protect children each and every year.

Locally, the Kingfisher County DHS office failed to move quickly to resolve a situation in which children were living in such terrible conditions that neighbors were flooding my office with calls of concern. Not only were the conditions of the household deplorable, but a lifetime sex offender who had been convicted of rape was living with them. After talking with Kingfisher County DHS director, I expected immediate action to protect these children. Instead, days passed. I contacted District Attorney Mike Fields. The DA’s office worked with the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation and was able to get an arrest warrant out for the sex offender in question.

Shockingly, there is currently no law that prohibits convicted sex offenders from living in a house with children. I can assure you I will be filing legislation to fix that problem.

I am also working closely with an Oklahoma City state representative who is also deeply concerned about DHS policies and practices. Together, we have already held two open meeting in which we questioned DHS commissioners about their role in overseeing the policies and practices of the agency. It is clear that the commission members have not fulfilled the full obligations of their position in the past, but change is coming to the commission via two new commissioners appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin. Our only concern is that the changes will not occur in a timely manner.

I am committed to reforming the agency and will tell you more about the problems I see and how I believe we should resolve them in coming weeks. This column is the first in a three-part series. As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.

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