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DHS commissioners ignored suit, audit calling for reform

Oklahoma Department of Human Services commissioners show little interest in child advocacy lawsuit, meeting requests.
BY RANDY ELLIS, NOLAN CLAY and ROBBY TRAMMELL Modified: September 10, 2011 at 11:57 pm •  Published: September 11, 2011

Copyright © 2011, The Oklahoman

As more and more children die in DHS care, commissioners there have ignored an audit calling for reform, belittled a federal lawsuit alleging children are being hurt and rejected calls for special meetings to address the ongoing tragedy.

Several commissioners at Oklahoma's Department of Human Services recently admitted under oath in depositions for the class-action lawsuit that they never read or only skimmed the taxpayer-funded $420,000 audit commissioned by the state Legislature to help the agency reform its child-welfare services.

“My eyes would have glazed over if I had,” said one commissioner, Linda Weeks, of the 197-page report that came out in 2009.

Some commissioners also admitted they haven't paid close attention to the multimillion class-action lawsuit by a children's-advocacy group that accuses the agency of actually harming foster children.

“My initial reaction was that our legal department would probably take care of it. I didn't probably take it as serious as I should have,” Commissioner Michael Peck said.

And commissioners refused one member's requests to hold special meetings to discuss high-profile deaths of children who had been under the agency's care.

Commissioner Steven Dow, who requested the special meetings, said commission Chairman Richard DeVaughn ignored his email requests.

“It seems to me that the commission, by and large, is just asleep at the wheel,” Dow told The Oklahoman.

Chairman DeVaughn strongly denied Dow's contention, saying “I would say it's 180 degrees from that.”

“The commission hires the director and establishes rules and policies,” he said. “When things go on, we're informed.”

Rejected requests

DeVaughn said he rejected requests to discuss high-profile deaths at special meetings because it would be improper for the commission to interfere with investigations of agency employees or make statements that could interfere with their civil rights.

DHS has faced widespread criticism for years over preventable child deaths and currently is under fire for its mishandling of the Serenity Deal case. The 5-year-old girl was beaten to death in June after being placed with her father at DHS workers' recommendation, despite having suffered injuries while in his care.

The commission, itself, is now drawing intense scrutiny. Critics question whether the commissioners who oversee the agency have abdicated their responsibilities and trust too much in their longtime director, Howard Hendrick.

‘Lax oversight'

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin spoke of an “appearance of lax oversight on the part of DHS commissioners” Wednesday in announcing her appointment of two new members to the nine-member commission. The governor appointed former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane and Oklahoma City businessman Brad Yarbrough and asked Yarbrough to serve as chairman.

Sworn testimony by six of the commission's nine members in the ongoing federal class-action lawsuit over foster care reveals example after example of commissioners' oversight lapses.

DHS has failed for years to get accreditation from a national organization, despite a state law requiring it, testimony reveals.

Hendrick, the director, blamed budget cuts for the agency's decision eight or nine years ago to quit following the law.

“I haven't told the current commission,” he testified. “My memory is this was discussed at the time these budgets were reduced, but I can't be for certain that it was.”

Seven standards

Several commissioners testified DHS administrators never told them the agency failed to meet all seven national standards for the safety and well-being of children in its custody.

DeVaughn told The Oklahoman that no state meets all seven standards so the failure wasn't as significant as it might sound.

Commissioners also couldn't recall being informed that for eight years straight, beginning in 2000, Oklahoma ranked among the five worst states in the country regarding abuse of children in care of the state.

Commissioners admit in testimony that they haven't conducted a formal evaluation of Hendrick's performance in years. Their own bylaws require an annual evaluation. Hendrick says he is paid $162,000 a year.

“If I tried to get familiar with every piece of information that was — that was given to me that DHS is involved in, I would be a superwoman.”

Aneta Wilkinson,

DHS commission vice chairman


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