House leaders react to resignation of Howard Hendrick as DHS director

 Howard Hendrick, director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) announced he intends to step aside as director at the agency. He disclosed his plans at the meeting of the DHS commissioners held today (Tuesday, January 24)

Peter J. Rudy of Oklahoma Watchdog reported this afternoon, “Choking back tears, Oklahoma Department of Human Services Director Howard Hendrick told the Human Services Commission today (Tuesday) that he will be ending his 13-year career at the helm of the agency next month.  Hendrick says with the lawsuit in federal court now about to be settled, he felt this was the perfect time to step down.”

Responding to the announcement was state Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican who is leading efforts to reform the agency, which has faced widespread criticism in the wake of the deaths of children within DHS care over recent years.

Nelson was in Canadian County meeting with members of a DHS working group. In a telephone interview with CapitolBeatOK, he said, “I’ve known Howard for years. I think the world of him. I’ve not talked to him about him leaving. I heard about it from people who were at the meeting.

“I assume he recognizes some of the changes required to implement the lawsuit settlement which will require that someone be at the helm of the agency for a good period of time going forward.”

Nelson concluded, “Hendrick has acted in the best interests of the agency, and I wish him well. He has done a lot of good and that will be remembered.”

Also responding to news of Hendrick’s resignation was Speaker of the House Kris Steele, who told a group of Capitol reporters, “Director Hendrick accomplished a great deal for this state and is to be commended for his many years of dedicated service. I wish him the very best. He’s a fine man and he did an admirable job. This is a new day at DHS, and Director Hendrick deserves credit for his recent efforts to get the agency on a path to reform.”

In brief discussion of the issue during a press conference on another topic, Steele said a national search should be conducted to find a new director for the recently controversial agency. Steele reflected, “DHS is the largest state agency. It serves more people than any other agency. We need to find the right leader to take it forward.”

CapitolBeatOK asked Steele if he has a sense of where discussions stood within the House on a possible breakup of the agency. Steele replied, “We will be working with the directors of the various divisions and seeing the best course to go forward. I don’t really have an answer on that right now.”

Pressed on the agency’s governance and organization, Steele said, “The structure of the agency, and everything, is on the table at this time.”

One reporter asked if the Shawnee Republican would be interested in the job if non-appropriated money could be identified to pay a director, Steele replied succinctly, “Not at this time.”

Also responding was the co-chairman of the Nelson panel studying DHS reform, Oklahoma City Democrat Richard Morrissette.

In comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, Morrissette said, “Today marks what I am hoping will be the beginning of a new era at the agency. 

Mr. Hendrick will be remembered as someone who tried to effect change for those facing life’s greatest challenges.

“I’ve been named as Vice Chair of the Human Services Appropriations and Budget committee and it is an honor and a privilege to play a role in creating a better future for Oklahoma’s children.”

Morrissette has advocated dividing DHS into what he calls “three manageable parts.”

The state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, had called on Hendrick to resign in a January 15 editorial.

DHS has offices in al 77 counties, a staff of 7,200 employees, 40 state and federal human services programs, and a $2.2 billion budget.