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DHS commissioners tell Oklahoma lawmakers they are working to improve agency

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: October 26, 2011

The new chairman of the Department of Human Services pledged to a small group of lawmakers Tuesday that the agency director's performance would be reviewed and the sprawling agency's organizational chart would be reviewed within a year.

“Our commitment is to make improvements to the agency,” Brad Yarbrough said. “We are going to be best served looking forward.”

Legislators, showing signs of impatience and frustration, said they may file measures in an attempt to make the agency more effective, to reduce the number of deaths of children in state custody and to make it more responsive when tragedies or mistakes occur.

Agency breakup proposed

Rep. Richard Morrissette said DHS is too big and he intends to file legislation that would break up the state's largest agency into three separate departments. One would oversee children's services, another would administer services for the elderly and the third would handle services for the developmentally disabled.

“The one in three people in Oklahoma that are being served by DHS needs to have an agency that is responsive to the 21st century,” said Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. “Right now it is structurally archaic and it must be changed. Now either they do it or we're going to do it.”

DHS Commissioner Richard DeVaughn, who formerly served as commission chairman, said such a proposal would create additional bureaucracy and “run the cost up.”

Morrissette, along with Rep. Mike Sanders, asked DHS commissioners to meet with lawmakers after two children died this summer while in the agency's custody. Problems are occurring, but it doesn't appear policies are changing, they said.

“This is not a witch hunt,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “We're just trying to figure out how to fix a major problem that has given a black eye to our state.

“We need as many eyes and hands on deck as possible on this.”

Morrissette said commissioners violated their own rules by failing to give an annual performance review of DHS Director Howard Hendrick.

Commissioner Michael Peck, who has served the longest on the commission — 13 years — said the last review of Hendrick occurred in 2008. However, he said Hendrick should remain as agency director.

Yarbrough, who was appointed last month to the commission and on Tuesday was named its chairman, said a performance review of Hendrick is among the issues the commission intends to undertake within the year.

“We believe that staff is doing their best to stay out of the headlines,” he said. “Really, they want to protect children.”

Finding proper role

Commissioners last month selected Yarbrough to serve as chairman of an organizational structure committee to determine its proper oversight role. And at the same time the commission named Wes Lane, a former Oklahoma County district attorney also appointed to the commission last month, to head up a special review committee that will look into deaths of children and adults in DHS care.

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