How to Fix DHS

By Rep. Mike Sanders

The scope of accountability problems at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is overwhelming, but must be addressed. I intend to use legislation and legislative pressure to return accountability to Oklahoma’s child welfare system. We can and must achieve better outcomes for the children of our state.

First, we must empower the DHS commission because their role is to exert accountability over the agency. There are members of the commission who wanted to delve deeper into the budget, child death cases and policies of DHS, but were effectively blocked by former chairman Richard DeVaughn. Gov. Mary Fallin solved the problem of leadership by appointing Brad Yarbrough and Wes Lane to the commission. Yarbrough now leads the commission and Lane is in charge of a committee that will reform how the commission functions and provide lawmakers with recommendations to statutorily increase the ability of the commission to provide oversight. The DHS commission has more direct access to the agency’s confidential materials and they are a critical asset in ensuring reforms are truly carried out.

I approve of the governor’s appointments and am cautiously optimistic that they will improve oversight of DHS. However, I will not take a back seat to their reform process. I have co-hosted meetings with seven of the nine commissioners in order to get questions on how the commission has functioned in the past and how they intend to change. We learned that contrary to state law, DHS Director Howard Hendrick has not received an annual job performance evaluation; his last was in 2008. We were also informed that only four members of the commission deal with the budget directly, the remainder basically rubber stamp the work of their colleagues. This is done in order to close the process to the public, because discussions of the full commission are subject to open record laws. I have been assured that change is coming, but actions will always speak louder than words.

Second, we must empower caseworkers. Without question, the organizational chart of the agency must change. A large number of middle-management positions and blurred lines of authority impedes its ability to act on an appropriate timeline in removing children from a dangerous environment and providing for their security. It is also clear to me in talking with a number of caseworkers that they have never been approached by their superiors to reform agency policy. Many of my own ideas come from DHS workers and I find it disappointing that they were not consulted earlier. I plan to support legislation introduced by my Oklahoma City colleague to streamline the agency’s organizational chart.

Third, we must legislatively strengthen state laws to protect children. I am carefully reviewing the successful child welfare systems in other states and plan to introduce legislation that will draw from their best practices. I plan to introduce legislation to ensure state law clearly states that children have no business in the home of a sex offender. I also plan to address the failed policy of “re-unification” at all costs.

DHS must admit to its past mistakes, learn from them and move forward with that knowledge. Those who are responsible for a child’s death, because they placed him or her in a home with clear indications of abuse or neglect should be brought to justice.

I would also like to thank our veterans and take a moment to remember those who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country. We owe them a great deal of gratitude and it is them we need to thank for all the freedoms we have today. So the next time you see a veteran, thank them for their service and courage.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.

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