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Department of Human Services commissioner apologizes for agency's failures

The incoming chairman of the commission that oversees the DHS made his comments after the House speaker announced a legislative study to come up with a strategy to improve the sprawling agency.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: October 20, 2011

The incoming chairman of the commission that oversees the state Department of Human Services apologized Wednesday for mistakes and failures caused by the agency.

“I'm sorry,” said Brad Yarbrough, who was appointed last month by Gov. Mary Fallin to the commission and next month will assume the chairman's responsibilities. The apology was delivered during a news conference where several legislators pledged to come up with ways to improve the sprawling agency after embarking on yet another study of DHS.

“I'm sorry for every failure that our agency has been associated with in the lives of our neighbors and friends,” said Yarbrough, an Oklahoma City businessman who also headed the state's faith-based initiatives in the 1990s.

Review panel

DHS commissioners last month formed a special review committee after being criticized for failing to publicly address high-profile instances of children dying while in DHS care. In May, a 17-month-old girl died a day after she was abused and in June a 5-year-old died from an assault after she began living full time with her father at the recommendation of DHS workers.

Yarbrough's address came after House Speaker Kris Steele announced he has assigned five legislators to look at the structure of DHS, how agency employees are assigned, and funding needs for the agency in response to demands from lawmakers and others to improve services for children in DHS custody.

“The Legislature over the past number of years has taken incremental steps to improve DHS,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “And still yet, unacceptable outcomes persist.”

Steele unveiled his strategy nearly three years after an independent audit of DHS described the agency as a troubled child welfare system that simply isn't protecting children as well as it should.

Suggestions included enhanced training for child welfare workers, a centralized hotline to report child abuse and neglect allegations and an emphasis on in-home services for families.

The 197-page audit, released in February 2009 at a cost to the state of $420,000, listed 25 recommendations. Legislators passed a measure in 2009 that addressed five of the recommendations, which included using public shelters less, putting the oversight of the shelters under the Commission on Children and Youth and starting a statewide child abuse hotline. The other 20 recommendations were not addressed during the past two sessions; testimony in an ongoing lawsuit revealed many DHS commissioners never read or only skimmed the audit.

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My expectation is one I believe most Oklahomans share, and that is to do whatever it takes to produce serious improvement at DHS.”

Kris Steele

Oklahoma House speaker


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