DHS officials on Tuesday began work on selecting a new director, cutting down the list of candidates from 54 to 17.
“The people of Oklahoma deserve the very best, and we intend to find that person,” said Brad Yarbrough, chairman of the commission that oversees the Department of Human Services.
The nine volunteer commissioners want to choose a new director by July 1. Applications for the job were due Monday. Commissioners intend to start interviewing the candidates in a few weeks.
Yarbrough said commissioners were really excited about a handful of the candidates. He said his reaction to others, though, was: “Are you kidding?”
DHS advertised the opening on 107 websites after Director Howard Hendrick announced in January he was retiring. Hendrick made $162,750 a year. His last day was Feb. 29. He served as director more than 13 years.
The director is the top job at Oklahoma's largest agency. The director is in charge of more than 7,000 employees and a budget of more than $2 billion.
The position can be unpopular. Hendrick often was the focus of public criticism when children in DHS care were killed.
Commissioners intend to hire an executive search firm to find more candidates if no one is hired from the current list. Commissioners Tuesday voted to get bids from search firms just in case.
“This is one of the most important, vital, critical undertakings of the commission at the current time,” Yarbrough said.
The search for a new director comes as the agency revamps its child welfare operations. Commissioners agreed to make changes when they settled a federal class-action lawsuit filed by a New York-based advocacy group.
The group, Children's Rights, sued DHS officials in 2008. The group alleged that DHS policies and practices are so bad that neglected and abused children are being harmed or at risk of harm at state shelters and foster homes.
DHS has until Friday to submit a child welfare improvement plan to three neutral monitors, who can accept it or reject it. The agency is calling the improvements the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan.
The plan calls for an increase in the number of foster families, DHS organizational changes, the hiring of more child welfare workers, a reduction in workers' caseloads and other measures.
The plan also calls for DHS to strengthen its relationships with tribes, other agencies, law enforcement, judges, district attorneys and faith-based groups involved in the care of children.
“We can't do it alone,” Deborah Smith, director of the DHS children and family services division, told commissioners Tuesday.
The agency intends to make the plan public Friday.