Ed Lake, former deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, has accepted the position of director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, agency officials announced Monday.
“I want to hit the ground running,” said Lake, 64, of Hendersonville, Tenn.
He will be given that opportunity.
The Oklahoma Commission for Human Services has scheduled a meeting for Nov. 1 — Lake's first day on the job — where it is expected to consider voting on whether to close one or both of Oklahoma's residential centers for developmentally disabled adults in Pauls Valley and Enid, an agency spokeswoman said.
The issue has been highly controversial, with vocal parent/guardian groups showing up to protest every time the issue has been raised, while many social work professionals have advocated moving residents to community-based settings as a way to improve residents' quality of life while saving the state money.
“It's a wrenching decision,” Lake said.
“Parents have children and loved ones that from their perspective have done well in an institution, but it's still an institution. Of course, here again, you have to develop appropriate, caring comprehensive resources for people. You can't just put them out there and expect them to thrive, but … my personal opinion is that people will do better in community-based resources than they will in an institution over a period of time.”
“It's an institution,” he said. “It's not always convenient to where the family is, so you have issues of visiting and staying in contact, and then there's just the institutional life. They don't call it institutionalized for nothing — what happens to people.”
Lake said he doesn't know Oklahoma well enough yet to voice an opinion on whether all the institutions should be closed.
There are 124 residents at the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley and 111 at the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center in Enid, an agency spokeswoman said.
Lake said Tennessee went through a similar transition, although not within the department where he had responsibility. While there was “angst” in the beginning, “slowly but surely” things got better there, he said.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a prepared statement Monday praising Lake's selection.
“I applaud the selection of Edward Lake as the next director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services,” Fallin said. “With experience at nearly every level of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Ed understands the challenges of managing an agency that interacts with the public at many levels. He has proved himself an effective leader who was able to work with the agency and external stakeholders to improve the quality of services delivered to clients.”
Fallin's approval of Lake is important, since Oklahomans will vote Nov. 6 on a state question that calls for abolishing the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services and replacing it with four advisory panels.
If that should happen, the governor would appoint the DHS director.
Fallin said she has no plans to replace Lake if State Question 765 is approved.
39 years of experience
Lake served 39 years with the Tennessee Department of Human Services. He worked his way up through the ranks, holding such positions as child welfare caseworker, food stamp office supervisor, county and regional director and assistant and deputy commissioner.
He retired from that agency in 2011.
Lake holds a bachelor's degree in social welfare from East Tennessee State University and a master's degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As DHS director, he will earn a salary of $185,000 a year, plus a $5,000 signing bonus if he stays on the job at least a year.
Lake will be taking over leadership of an agency that has come under considerable legislative and public scrutiny because of the deaths of children in its care.
One of his primary responsibilities will be overseeing the implementation of a five-year reform plan, called the Pinnacle Plan, which was developed as part of a settlement agreement to a Tulsa federal class-action lawsuit over the care of children in state custody.
Lake voiced strong familiarity with provisions of the plan that calls for decreasing caseloads, improving training, enhancing support from management, recruiting more foster homes and decreasing use of state shelters.
“I think it's a good plan,” Lake said. “It's got the components that would lead to a successful child welfare system. Now, getting there with the ambitious time frame and a lot of the ambitious elements of the plan, that's going to be a challenge. But you've got to do it. It hasn't got anything to do with the legalities of the agreement. Those are the right things to do.”
“We all want that department to be the department that Oklahomans want,” he said.
Lake said that means operating an agency that cares about people and said that caring should be obvious to people outside the agency.
“We want to become known for our competency and our willingness to go the extra mile to protect children and help adults, and do what we're supposed to do,” Lake said.
DHS is Oklahoma's largest state agency with about 7,000 employees. The agency has a total budget of about $2.3 billion, including federal programs. The agency was appropriated $587 million in state dollars for fiscal year 2012, said Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for the agency.
Lake will succeed Howard Hendrick, who announced his retirement earlier this year.
Preston Doerflinger has been serving as interim director. Doerflinger will now go back to his former position as director of the Office of State Finance.