The Department of Human Services Commission has formed a special committee to look into deaths of children and adults in DHS care.
The Special Review Committee will be headed by former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane, one of two new DHS commission members.
“It's just tragedy all the way around,” Lane said of a series of high-profile deaths of children in custody of the state welfare agency. “I don't think this is like some hunt for fault, but I really do think we have a responsibility of accountability.”
The announcement of the new committee came Tuesday during the first meeting that Lane and new Commissioner Brad Yarbrough attended. They are Gov. Mary Fallin's initial appointments to the nine-member Oklahoma Commission for Human Services.
The committee's formation represented a dramatic departure for the commission, which has been heavily criticized in the past for failure to publicly respond to the deaths of children in DHS care.
The governor, herself, earlier this month criticized commissioners for the “appearance of lax oversight” in the handling of the death of 5-year-old Serenity Deal.
Serenity died June 4, less than a month after she began living with her father full time at the recommendation of some DHS workers.
The girl was placed with her father, Sean Devon Brooks, even though she was injured twice in January during overnight visits with him. Serenity's mother had been accused of molesting a boy.
Brooks, 31, of Oklahoma City, is charged with first-degree murder. He has denied to police that he beat his daughter.
One DHS worker involved in the case committed suicide. A DHS supervisor quit. Another worker and supervisor were fired.
DHS Director Howard Hendrick described the situation as an unfortunate case the agency will have to work through.
“Anytime you have a situation where you have something go wrong and required the action that we had to take ... it's unfortunate,” he said.
“We held responsible those who had case responsibility. And that's really where this case, at least we believe, this case went awry. We don't have that in lots of other cases. I think we're all accountable. ... I think that's why we're taking the action that we've taken.”
Lane said he hopes the commission can examine the deaths to determine whether the agency is doing the “best it can as far as humanly possible” to make sure the best policies are in place and that they are being followed.
“Everybody's on board,” he said. “Everybody wants to see children protected.”
“I expect to bring in people from the outside out in the community who have certain areas of expertise who can help,” Lane said.
Yarbrough was selected Tuesday to serve as chairman of an Organizational Structure Committee that will seek to determine the commission's proper oversight role.
Yarbrough said he wants the committee to determine the “clear responsibility” of the commission, whose members do not receive salaries for their work.
“On one extreme, no one is naive enough to believe a commission should micro manage the DHS,” he said.
“On the other, all believe it would be irresponsible to accept some perfunctory role.”
Yarbrough will take over as commission chairman at the governor's request after the commission's regular October meeting.
The governor praised formation of the two committees Tuesday as being a good step toward establishing strong oversight and said she was pleased her two appointees were diving right in on that effort.
Fallin drew criticism Tuesday from former Commissioner George Young, who was replaced by Lane.
Young said he was disappointed Fallin didn't appoint a black or Hispanic commissioner with at least one of her appointments.
Young, who had been the lone black commission member, said he believes minorities have an important point of view to bring to the agency which helps the poor and disadvantaged.
Asked about Young's comments, Fallin's communications director, Alex Weintz, responded: “Governor Fallin's priority is to appoint the most qualified applicants to fill these and other positions. It's worth noting that she has only had the opportunity to appoint two DHS commissioners at this point in her administration.”
Lane and Yarbrough are joining DHS at a difficult time for the agency.
Hendrick announced Tuesday that the agency provided assistance to a record 622,911 people under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly called the food stamp program) in August as the national economy continues to struggle.
That represents an increase of more than 8,800 from the previous month. About a third of Oklahoma children now receive such assistance, he said.
Commissioners on Tuesday also received a report from Casey Family Programs.
The private foundation has been studying DHS policies and training related to implementing a new “imminent safety threat” standard established by the Legislature in 2009 as the criteria to be used in determining when children should be removed from dangerous homes.
Casey representatives Page Walley and Sue Steib generally gave DHS policies high marks but said some workers they interviewed raised concerns that high turnover and caseloads were limiting the agency's effectiveness.
“Safety plans are only as good as their monitoring and ours are not always monitored well,” the organization's report quoted a worker as saying.
“Several interviewees, especially those in the Oklahoma City area, pointed to high turnover as a concerning factor when questioned about staff skills and capacity,” the report said.
“It was also suggested that more follow through is needed in studying situations of serious child injuries and child deaths and using findings to inform policy and training for all child welfare staff,” the report said.
”Currently, according to interviewee reports, these incidents are investigated, but there is not a clearly defined and implemented process for using the learning from the investigation to inform changes in training and/or policy.”
High risk factors
Steib told commissioners that some workers said they needed clarification on what to do in situations where there is not an imminent safety threat, but where there are high risk factors present that could lead to future problems. Workers want to know the agency's responsibility for providing services and possibly seeking court intervention in those cases, she said.
Workers said the new safety standard also has increased the time needed to work cases properly, she said.
Asked about turnover, Hendrick said, “It's not significantly different than other states for better or worse. We actually have about 70 percent of our staff who have more than two years of experience in child welfare. There's a significant number of the work force that's been there quite a while. They know their work and they're doing it very well.”
“I think there are a lot of things that are going right and we just have to continue to improve what we're doing,” he said.
The commission also adopted a Fiscal Year 2013 budget request that seeks about $192.7 million more in state funds than the current fiscal year.
That would bring the total requested state appropriation up to about $707.2 million and the agency's total budget (including federal funds) up to about $2.47 billion.
Hendrick said the agency doesn't expect to get nearly that amount, but the budget represents how commissioners perceive the agency's needs.