Problems Run Rampant

By Rep. Mike Sanders

In my previous column, I outlined the systemwide failure of the Department of Human Services to protect the children of our state. I would now like to discuss what I believe is the root of their problems.

Frighteningly, a lack of accountability is one of the top reasons DHS regularly fails to catch and correct mistakes. DHS Commissioner Steven Dow has provided us with numerous examples of commission members failing to fulfill their obligations in overseeing the agency. Commissioners have admitted that they failed to read materials from a lawsuit and failed to go over cases that ended in the death of a child. Considering the vast array of lawsuits and negative attention the agency has received, I can hardly believe those overseeing the agency are not taking the matter more seriously.

The aftermath of the death of Serenity Deal is an example of the agency’s internal failure to address mistakes. The agency took months to respond to the question of how this little girl could be placed with her father when there was evidence that he was a threat to her. It was only after intense pressure that the agency finally fired two employees. The claim is that those two employees were working outside of DHS policy, but I remain skeptical. Unfortunately, when an agency has such a poor track record, an internal investigation can rarely be trusted to shine a revealing light on any of the serious issues they face.

The agency has also made poor spending decisions. Instead of taking responsibility for mistakes that have very little to do with money, DHS regularly claims that their problems stem from underfunding. I contend that the $2.2 billion ($537 million from the state and the remaining amount coming from the federal government) DHS received for fiscal year 2012 is more than enough to run the agency effectively. More money will not keep DHS from continuing to place children with foster homes or parents who have already been flagged as abusive. Meanwhile, foster parents and parents who are doing the right thing for children in their care can’t seem to catch a break.

I think DHS is mismanaging its funds. The food stamp program is an example. I think the agency is too free in handing out food stamps. It’s clear there is a problem when we see food stamp recipients driving Cadillac Escalades. The agency has also failed to do what lawmakers have asked of all state agencies – cut top-level bureaucratic positions. An adequate number of case workers and reduced caseload could be achieved with current funding, if it was not tied up in top-level positions and wasteful spending.

It is clear from the DHS organizational chart that there are too many administrators running the agency. DHS has become a top-level bureaucracy in which hardly anything can be efficiently accomplished. There is a mind-boggling number of middle management positions and blurred lines of authority. The chart basically looks like a science experiment gone horribly wrong. It is available at www.okdhs.org under Divisions and Offices.

Finally, I am dismayed by the agency’s policy of “re-unification” at all costs. This sounds nice and really important on the surface, but what I think it translates to is that poor parents are given too many second chances, at the expense of the children DHS is charged to protect. Does it make sense to stick a child in unsafe homes or with felons just because the agency wants to keep them with family? Before DHS puts a child back in a home, do they truly conduct an adequate safety assessment?

This column is the second in a three-part series. In my final column, I would like to talk about ideas I have for reforming the agency. As always, I would love to hear from you. I can be reached at the Capitol at (405) 557-7407.

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