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Department of Human Services commissioner apologizes for agency's failures

The incoming chairman of the commission that oversees the DHS made his comments after the House speaker announced a legislative study to come up with a strategy to improve the sprawling agency.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: October 20, 2011

‘Important tool'

“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.”