The incoming chairman of the commission that oversees the state Department of Human Services apologized Wednesday for mistakes and failures caused by the agency.
“I'm sorry,” said Brad Yarbrough, who was appointed last month by Gov. Mary Fallin to the commission and next month will assume the chairman's responsibilities. The apology was delivered during a news conference where several legislators pledged to come up with ways to improve the sprawling agency after embarking on yet another study of DHS.
“I'm sorry for every failure that our agency has been associated with in the lives of our neighbors and friends,” said Yarbrough, an Oklahoma City businessman who also headed the state's faith-based initiatives in the 1990s.
DHS commissioners last month formed a special review committee after being criticized for failing to publicly address high-profile instances of children dying while in DHS care. In May, a 17-month-old girl died a day after she was abused and in June a 5-year-old died from an assault after she began living full time with her father at the recommendation of DHS
Yarbrough's address came after House Speaker Kris Steele announced he has assigned five legislators to look at the structure of DHS, how agency employees are assigned, and funding needs for the agency in response to demands from lawmakers and others to improve services for children in DHS custody.
“The Legislature over the past number of years has taken incremental steps to improve DHS,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “And still yet, unacceptable outcomes persist.”
Steele unveiled his strategy nearly three years after an independent audit of DHS described the agency as a troubled child welfare system that simply isn't protecting children as well as it should.
Suggestions included enhanced training for child welfare workers, a centralized hotline to report child abuse and neglect allegations and an emphasis on in-home services for
The 197-page audit, released in February 2009 at a cost to the state of $420,000, listed 25 recommendations. Legislators passed a measure in 2009 that addressed five of the recommendations, which included using public shelters less, putting the oversight of the shelters under the Commission on Children and Youth and starting a statewide child abuse hotline. The other 20 recommendations were not addressed during the past two sessions; testimony in an ongoing lawsuit revealed many DHS commissioners never read or only skimmed the audit.
“I've personally challenged each and every member of the team to start by dusting off that particular report and go back and revisit the recommendations,” Steele said. “We did not get very far at all in the organizational reform recommendations. That report, I believe, will be a very important tool for this team.”
Steele said legislation intended to improve DHS, the state's largest agency, will be a policy priority in the House next session, which starts in February.
“My expectation is one I believe most Oklahomans share, and that is to do whatever it takes to produce serious improvement at DHS,” Steele said.
Steele was joined by the five lawmakers who will be looking at DHS: Reps. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City; Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa; Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City; Wade Rousselot, D-Okay; and Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore. DHS Director Howard Hendrick and Yarbrough, who said the commission would cooperate with the legislative study, also were with Steele.
“We're all interested in identifying solutions,” Steele said. “This is not about pointing fingers or casting blame. ... It's time to begin to work together with this agency to identify positive solutions. Starting today, the status quo ends.”
Digging into details
Nelson said the group will hold small meetings with DHS workers in the field, where the lawmakers can observe how policies are carried out and analyze organizational strength and needs. The group will also meet with DHS officials, commissioners and others.
“Our goal is to dig into the details like they've never been dug into,” Nelson said. “Why are we still seeing some of the child death cases that we're seeing?”
Sherri Heath, a cousin of 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs, who died in 2005 while under DHS care, asked Nelson if people with family members who died while under DHS care would be included in discussions. Nelson said they would.
Heath said afterward she thought the legislative effort was a good move.
“Changes do need to be made at DHS,” said Heath, of Meeker.
She said DHS child care workers need to be commended.
“They have a terrible workload,” Heath said. “What we have discovered also is that all the counties have their own set of rules. We would like to see consistency within the rules of the whole state — each county has the same rules to follow.”
My expectation is one I believe most Oklahomans share, and that is to do whatever it takes to produce serious improvement at DHS.”