GOV. Mary Fallin is demanding more from the Oklahoma Human Services Commission, the board that oversees the Department of Human Services. Oklahomans should hope she gets it.
Fallin on Wednesday named former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane and businessman Brad Yarbrough to the commission. Yarbrough will serve the remaining five years of the term of Bob Rawlings, who resigned, and will take over as commission chairman. Lane replaces George Young, whose nine-year term expired.
The governor said she was concerned about the “appearance of lax oversight” by the commission. There is every reason to be concerned. Consider how little we have heard from commission members after high-profile cases in which children have been harmed or even killed while in the DHS system.
The latest example is that of Serenity Deal, a 5-year-old Pottawatomie County girl who was placed with her biological father despite concerns raised by case workers. In June, not long after the placement, Serenity was beaten to death. Her father is charged with first-degree murder.
One of the case workers, who fought against placing Serenity with her father, later committed suicide. Another retired. Two others are in the process of being fired. The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, a watchdog agency, highlighted the breakdowns that occurred within DHS in Serenity's case, and House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, has led the call for more openness and accountability from DHS.
But the DHS Commission? As a body, it has said nothing. It also didn't do or say much, publicly, in 2009 after an audit commissioned by the Legislature was critical of the agency, or after DHS fared poorly in a federal review in 2008.
Steele pointed out Wednesday that commissioners haven't given DHS Director Howard Hendrick a performance review since 2004, and haven't done a formal organizational review of the agency in at least a decade. Commission bylaws require the former be conducted annually and the latter every three years.
“It's time the commission ends its practice of protecting the status quo and instead acts as the conscientious, engaged watchdog it was designed to be,” Steele said.
Lane and Yarbrough look to be good fits. Before becoming district attorney, Lane oversaw the office's juvenile affairs division and handled scores of DHS child welfare cases. He also heads a foundation focused on problems that affect families. In addition to his business interests, Yarbrough, an ordained minister, has helped open several homes across the country for women in crisis.
The men said the right things Wednesday, vowing to see that DHS does all it can to protect Oklahoma's vulnerable children. Now they must follow through on those promises. Oversight needs to mean exactly that.