Commissioners responsible for fixing Oklahoma's troubled child welfare system have been fighting among themselves — with one commissioner going so far as to write a letter to colleagues accusing a fellow commissioner of misconduct.
“I firmly believe that the actions of Commissioner (Steven) Dow are unacceptable and are detrimental to OKDHS and this commission,” Commissioner Aneta Wilkinson wrote in a March 2 letter to fellow Department of Human Services commissioners. She repeated her concerns Wednesday in a telephone interview.
Contacted Wednesday, Dow strongly denied any misconduct and said he thought the letter resulted from “miscommunication” and a misinterpretation of some of his recent information-gathering activities.
The turmoil comes at a critical time as commissioners work to select a new director and submit a plan to reform a child welfare system that has experienced numerous failures in preventing child deaths from abuse and neglect.
In the letter, Wilkinson criticized Dow for a Feb. 23 meeting that he and Tulsa civil rights attorney Louis Bullock conducted in Oklahoma City with parents and guardians of
Dow told people at that meeting that the Pauls Valley center and the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center in Enid “would definitely be closed,” according to notes of the meeting that Wilkinson attached to her letter to commissioners.
At the meeting, Dow and Bullock presented a proposal that would give residents enhanced benefits for relocating and living in community-based environments. Such benefit enhancements currently are only available to former residents of the Hissom facility in Sand Springs. Hissom residents were forced to relocate after a federal judge in 1987 ordered the institution to close because of violations of residents' civil rights. Bullock was an attorney in that lawsuit.
“Dow's encouragement of bringing the SORC residents into ‘the Hissom Waiver Class' is tantamount to encouraging a lawsuit against DHS,” Wilkinson charged in her letter to commissioners.
State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, earlier expressed similar concerns to The Oklahoman about Dow's meeting with parents and guardians.
“I think it's very inappropriate for a sitting commissioner to be involved in what appears to be recruiting families to be involved in a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma,” said Anderson, whose district includes the Enid facility.
Commissioner Jay Dee Chase also questioned during a February DHS meeting whether Dow was promoting a class-action lawsuit against his own agency.
Chase and Dow used to sit next to each other at commission meetings and have had several terse verbal exchanges. At the most recent meeting, Dow's seat had been moved across the horseshoe-shaped tables.
Dow strongly denied encouraging anyone to file a lawsuit against DHS.
“Am I encouraging a lawsuit against the state? Absolutely not,” Dow said. “In no way was the issue of encouraging a lawsuit even discussed at that meeting, nor would I ever do that.”
Dow also denied telling parents and guardians that the Pauls Valley institution would definitely close.