STERLING Zearley has a problem with publicity, unless it's good publicity. Zearley, head of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, wishes The Oklahoman would spend its time writing about the large majority of Department of Human Services employees who “affect the lives of thousands of Oklahomans by providing services to our most vulnerable citizens.”
In other words, those many DHS employees who do their jobs.
He'd rather the newspaper not tell the public about child welfare workers who have shirked their responsibilities and as a result put children in harm's way. Or about those who have stolen gift cards meant for foster children, or stolen from elderly DHS clients, or abused children in shelters.
Reporting on these things, as The Oklahoman did Sunday, is being done “in order to further their agenda against the agency,” Zearley says in a news release. Well.
Zearley apparently would have preferred that nothing was said or written about the many children who've died in the DHS system in the past few years. Children like Aja Johnson and Kelsey Smith-Briggs and Serenity Deal. They died at the hands of family members. Had DHS employees handled their cases differently somewhere along the line, they might be alive today.
Instead there was considerable reporting about these children and others; as a result, lawsuits were filed and elected officials took notice. Changes were made to the board that governs DHS. More changes are being proposed. State Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, says this is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make some serious changes” to DHS. “We need to streamline it, make it more efficient, mean and lean so it serves its mission statement.”
Morrissette and others at the Capitol are tired of reading about breakdowns in the process that contributed to bad endings in child welfare cases. Or about DHS commissioners who didn't seem to want to ask tough questions of top DHS officials about some of those cases. These legislators are committed to coming up with ways to help the agency do its job better, so that case workers aren't overworked to the point where they don't follow up quickly enough on complaints or don't burn out quickly.
Sunday's stories mentioned one child-welfare specialist who said that because of her workload, she hadn't even begun 15 investigations into reports that children were in danger. The volume of cases is clearly one of the most important issues facing the agency.
But workload wouldn't be a factor in teasing residents of a home for mentally disabled, or instigating fights between teenage girls at a group home, or looking up pornography on a state computer, or making fake IDs in order to get food stamps. The DHS workers who did these things were among the 200-plus DHS employees who have been disciplined in the past four years, out of a full-time workforce of about 7,000, including nearly 1,300 in child welfare.
Zearley wishes we'd write more about people like Olivia Kyaterekera, who was honored by DHS recently for saving a child who had been kept locked in a closet. “This is just an example of the work OKDHS workers do every day to save endangered children,” he said.
God bless those who do! But when children die because the adults charged with caring for them failed in their duties, or because the system didn't work as it should have, that news is going to make headlines.