Speaker Steele, Rep. Nelson lead drive for DHS reform, call for more involvement from churches and other non-government groups

 Flanked by officials struggling with failures and inefficiencies at the Department of Human Services, (DHS), Speaker of the House Kris Steele last week formally empowered a bi-partisan group of legislators who have been meeting for several months to delve into operations at the agency.

State Rep. Jason Nelson of Oklahoma City is leading a comprehensive look at the troubled agency’s governance structure, agency structure, personnel policy and resource allocation.

Steele, Nelson and DHS Commissioner Brad Yarborough said, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, that the issues dogging DHS require more than a government response.

When asked if churches were doing enough, Nelson responded that the job of his task force is to focus on what the Legislature can do in the near-term and in the coming years. But, concerning church involvement, he concluded bluntly “The answer is no.” Nelson expressed gratitude for involvement of many churches and individuals, but agreed with the thesis of the question: government is not the most effective way to address the current crisis.

Yarborough, who explicitly apologized for widely publicized agency failures, said, “The best place for individuals in need is a health family. Government can’t do that.” He continued, “The faith community ought to be the second safety net.” He said, “Government is really not the best place to get healthy families.” Yarborough previously led the state office of Faith-Based Initiatives, now part of DHS.

Steele observed churches have played “a key role” in attempts to address the issues of child protection, foster care and strategies to assist suffering individuals. He said the state government should work with all interested private groups, advocates for children and DHS employees – in fact, “every entity in the state” – to improve child protection.

State Rep. Pam Peterson of Tulsa, another member of the House of Representatives Task Force, described a wide range of faith-based work on adoption and foster care issues, and predicted intensification of such efforts.

DHS Director Howard Hendrick said more churches need to step up, but he pointed to current examples of deep church involvement in foster care and better parenting issues. He noted, “Families are incredibly different than in 1936. The economy is not that far from where we were in 1936.”

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, another Task Force House member, said the most common complaint she hears about DHS “is non-responsiveness. People almost have a feeling that they’re running into a brick wall, and not being able to get questions and concerns answered.”

Republicans Nelson and Peterson, along with Democrat Hamilton, are serving on the task force with Republican Rep. Pat Ownbey of Ardmore and Democratic Rep. Wade Rousselot of Okay.

Supporting Steele’s four-pronged strategy aimed at the entire agency, many speakers at Wednesday’s Blue Room press conference said the most intense focus is improving services for children in state custody.

In response to questions from reporters, Steele reviewed changes to DHS policy or practices made in recent years. He characterized these steps as “incremental reforms,” but stressed more changes are needed.

Steele has in the past several months become increasingly critical of DHS failures that have preceded child deaths. Last session, he led passage of legislation enhancing background checks and scrutiny of foster parents. In recent years, the Legislature has mandated creation of a child abuse hotline. The state has made dramatic progress toward placement of children in adoptive homes rather than foster care, as Hendrick noted.

Yet, Steele agreed, many recommendations flowing from a 2009 audit of the agency remain unimplemented. He commented, “The status quo ends today.”

Steele noted that DHS has seen below-average budget cuts in wake of the Great Recession, and said reallocation of taxpayer dollars is a more likely outcome than increased DHS appropriations from tax revenues.

Nelson at one point, responding to a question about personnel structures at DHS, said, “The agency might be top heavy. Maybe it’s even middle-heavy. I don’t think you can say it is bottom heavy.” Over the long run, he said, more spending may be one of the steps needed to improve agency performance. DHS has slowly dropped from 8,000 employees to 7,200 today, he reported.

Concerning the process that is now intensifying, Steele admitted, “ “It won’t be easy, but what we’re saying today is we’re going to buckle down and get there together.”

In prepared remarks, Rep. Nelson said, “There will be no sitting in hearings making motions and watching PowerPoints all day. DHS faces serious challenges that necessitate us getting out of the Capitol and into the field.” He characterized the panel’s past and continued field work as “outside-the-box.”

Sterling Zearley of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, praised Nelson and other members of the panel for meeting with DHS workers. Nelson said in some cases members of the task force will meet privately with employees and other “stakeholders.” Ultimately, Nelson said, a summary of findings will be presented, and substantive changes in law will be submitted to the Legislature.

Zearley said, “We appreciate these representatives for their willingness to get out of the Capitol to spend time with the workers who are on the ground protecting Oklahoma’s children. The front line employees’ unique perspective and their experience will be valuable in this critical process.”

Rep. Ron Peters, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Human Services, issued a brief statement of support, saying “It’s the right thing to do and I commend them for it. I stand ready to assist in any way.”

Governor Mary Fallin, who put Yarborough and former Oklahoma County District Attorney West Lane on the commission a few weeks ago, said in a statement those two men were put on the governing panel to increase the agency’s “accountability, transparency and efficiency.” She supports the House effort to examine the agency’s operations and said, in her statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, “The current results are unacceptable.”

Julie Bisbee of the state Institute for Child Advocacy cheered the new focus. She reflected, “It is government’s responsibility to protect children in its care. … No child in state custody should ever fear for their safety or be mistreated. We are heartened to see so many stakeholders coming to the table to discuss ways to best protect Oklahoma’s children.”

Bisbee and her group are working with the state government’s Commission on Children and Youth on a task force aiming to improve foster care.

The deaths of Serenity Deal and Ahonesty Hicks, a pair of children under DHS supervision who were killed after being returned to parents or guardians with troubled histories, have in some ways become the faces of the current controversy about the agency’s effectiveness. Although not named, they were referenced directly and indirectly several times at Wednesday’s press conference.

Just before the lengthy one-hour session with reporters ended, Sherri Heath, cousin of another child (Kelsey Smith-Briggs) who died while under DHS’ responsibility, asked Rep. Nelson if he would be meeting with family members of such children. Nelson responded, “Absolutely. This is going to require the collective wisdom of all of us.”

He concluded by saying, “What’s different in this effort is that I don’t remember a time when everything was and is on the table. Anything that needs to be changed will be on the table for consideration.”