Widely publicized investigations of policies at the Department of Human Services (DHS) are not enough to solve the agency’s problems, two members of the state House asserted last week. The pair pressed their case although reporters wondered, in questions and in dialogue, what another hearing could add to a process reaching critical mass in the work of two new DHS commissioners appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin, and the determination of Speaker of the House Kris Steele to guide legislative scrutiny of the troubled agency.
Democratic Rep. Richard Morrisette of Oklahoma City and Republican Rep. Mike Sanders of Kingfisher announced plans for their own probe. They plan to ask members of the Human Services Commission, which oversees the work of DHS, to appear before a meeting.
Meanwhile, Speaker Steele and other legislators are meeting with Capitol reporters. They are expected to detail initial steps taken to understand and address deaths and/or abuse of children in care of, or under supervision of, DHS and its employees
Steele has long expressed frustration with DHS reports and behavior on a range of issues. Last summer, he said after the death of one child, “Oklahoma is well past the point of being simply ‘concerned’ about DHS.”
In addition to Steele’s work, new DHS Commissioners Brad Yarborough and Wes Lane are undertaking, on behalf of Gov. Mary Fallin, a critical look at the agency.
In Sunday editions of The Oklahoman, a trio of investigative reporters laid out evidence that DHS has presented misleading information about the number of child abuse cases in recent years. Last week, Nolan Clay of The Oklahoman reported on the efforts of Yarborough and Lane to investigate the death of Ahonesty Hicks.
In the weeks before Fallin named Yarborough and Lane as commissioners, reporter Clay and his colleagues wrote on a lack of awareness of agency problems and state litigation exposure among some commissioners.
Last month, Gov. Fallin said she respected many who work at DHS, noting her mother was a social worker.
However, in naming the two new commissioners, Fallin made it clear she expected the pair to play leading roles in scrutinizing disposition of cases involving the death of children, agency governance issues, and adherence to open meetings’ laws.
Decrying the deaths of innocent children, she also told CapitolBeatOK, “I expect all of our state agencies to comply with the law in all respects, and there are questions about whether that occurred. We have to have openness and transparency, especially as it relates to our children who are at most risk.”
At a press event, pressed by CapitolBeatOK to distinguish their efforts from investigations already underway, Morrissette said it was time to end “business as usual” at DHS because “enough is enough.” Sanders commended the speaker and the new DHS commissioners in comments to reporters, but said in a prepared statement “The Buck stops here. We demand answers and we want them now.”
Morrissette and Sanders were restrained in answering reporter Clay’s questions concerning DHS Director Howard Hendrick’s tenure at the agency. However, both men were clearly critical of Hendrick and most current commissioners.
Rep. Morrissette has long pressed for changes at the agency. A performance audit of DHS suggested major policy changes a few years ago, and he contends reforms have not been forthcoming.
In early summer, Oklahoma Watchdog detailed apparent open meeting violations that led to a chiding of the commissioners from current Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.
Fallin has been reluctant to criticize Hendrick, the DHS director. Lane, now one of the Hendrick’s bosses, worked for 21 years in the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office as an important lieutenant of Robert H. Macy. When Macy retired, Lane then served five and a half years as district attorney. In his career, Lane oversaw the juvenile division and handled hundreds of child welfare cases. He won one full term in his own right, but lost to Prater when he sought a second elective term.
Facing major challenges to DHS policies and procedures, the agency has already paid out more then $3.4 million in civil lawsuit judgments since 2005, the Tulsa World has reported. Of 24 payouts, the World found, $1.4 million came from the agency budget, while $2 million came from insurance entities.