The longtime DHS director on Tuesday defended his often-criticized agency and the commissioners who oversee it.
“We have a lot of things that are going right,” Director Howard H. Hendrick told The Oklahoman.
Hendrick said “what keeps me going” is the difference his employees make in the lives of vulnerable people. “The reason why I stay is, primarily, because we have a lot of good people who make this work worthwhile,” he said. “And, that's really what I'm motivated by.”
But, asked how much longer he wanted to hang on to his job, he said, “I don't know.”
The Department of Human Services has come under intense scrutiny since a young girl, Serenity Deal, died from a beating in June.
Serenity, 5, died less than a month after she was placed with her father at the recommendation of DHS workers. The father, Sean Devon Brooks, has been charged with first-degree murder. DHS officials say the workers on her case violated policies, particularly in failing to fully check into the father's background.
Panel comes under fire
The nine-member DHS commission has been widely criticized. One commissioner, Steven Dow, called the group “just asleep at the wheel.” Earlier this month, Gov. Mary Fallin spoke of an “appearance of lax oversight” when she named two new commissioners.
Commissioners have faced criticism for their refusal to discuss at public meetings the deaths of Serenity and other children in DHS care.
Also, testimony in an ongoing lawsuit revealed many commissioners never read or only skimmed a $420,000 audit state legislators had done to help the agency reform its child-welfare services.
Hendrick said Tuesday, “I think there's not an appreciation of what other members are doing. We have some members of our commission who focus on our property needs. We have other members of our commission who focus on our finances. We have other members of the commission who focus on different parts of the agency. So, a lot depends on where the commissioners' interests are. … It's like any other board.”
Some programs touted
Hendrick said the agency is doing well in lots of areas and leads the nation in such things as getting children adopted out of foster care and collecting child support.
About Serenity's case, Hendrick said workers didn't follow policies that would have brought to light things about the father. “We can't say whether or not — if those things had been checked — a different result would have happened. They may have still concluded that it was OK to send the child home and the same result would have happened.”
Four workers involved in the case were suspended in June after Serenity's death. One then killed himself. Another resigned. The last two were fired this month.
Hendrick, 56, a former state senator, has been DHS director since July 1, 1998. He makes $162,750 a year and has refused to take more pay, the commission chairman has said.
We can't say whether or not — if those things had been checked — a different result would have happened. They may have still concluded that it was OK to send the child home and the same result would have happened.”