The new chairman of the Department of Human Services pledged to a small group of lawmakers Tuesday that the agency director's performance would be reviewed and the sprawling agency's organizational chart would be reviewed within a year.
“Our commitment is to make improvements to the agency,” Brad Yarbrough said. “We are going to be best served looking forward.”
Legislators, showing signs of impatience and frustration, said they may file measures in an attempt to make the agency more effective, to reduce the number of deaths of children in state custody and to make it more responsive when tragedies or mistakes occur.
Agency breakup proposed
Rep. Richard Morrissette said DHS is too big and he intends to file legislation that would break up the state's largest agency into three separate departments. One would oversee children's services, another would administer services for the elderly and the third would handle services for the developmentally disabled.
“The one in three people in Oklahoma that are being served by DHS needs to have an agency that is responsive to the 21st century,” said Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. “Right now it is structurally archaic and it must be changed. Now either they do it or we're going to do it.”
DHS Commissioner Richard DeVaughn, who formerly served as commission chairman, said such a proposal would create additional bureaucracy and “run the cost up.”
Morrissette, along with Rep. Mike Sanders, asked DHS commissioners to meet with lawmakers after two children died this summer while in the agency's custody. Problems are occurring, but it doesn't appear policies are changing, they said.
“This is not a witch hunt,” said Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “We're just trying to figure out how to fix a major problem that has given a black eye to our state.
“We need as many eyes and hands on deck as possible on this.”
Morrissette said commissioners violated their own rules by failing to give an annual performance review of DHS Director Howard Hendrick.
Commissioner Michael Peck, who has served the longest on the commission — 13 years — said the last review of Hendrick occurred in 2008. However, he said Hendrick should remain as agency director.
Yarbrough, who was appointed last month to the commission and on Tuesday was named its chairman, said a performance review of Hendrick is among the issues the commission intends to undertake within the year.
“We believe that staff is doing their best to stay out of the headlines,” he said. “Really, they want to protect children.”
Finding proper role
Commissioners last month selected Yarbrough to serve as chairman of an organizational structure committee to determine its proper oversight role. And at the same time the commission named Wes Lane, a former Oklahoma County district attorney also appointed to the commission last month, to head up a special review committee that will look into deaths of children and adults in DHS care.
Ask more questions
Commissioners heard complaints that too many of them depended too much on Hendrick and DHS staff and that they should be more inquisitive during meetings.
DeVaughn said DHS policies have changed and are reviewed after a death or other tragedy occurs to someone in the agency's custody.
He conceded no special meetings were called by the commission after any of the recent deaths of children in custody; the cases were reviewed in closed sessions because much of the information is confidential, he said.
“Can we absolutely guarantee that there won't be a tragedy next year or the year after that? Absolutely not and neither can you, no matter what you do,” DeVaughn said.
DHS commissioners Steven Dow and Linda English Weeks also met Tuesday with lawmakers. Dow, Lane and Commissioner Anne Roberts met with Morrissette, Sanders and another lawmaker on Friday.
Commissioners Aneta Wilkinson and Jay Dee Chase didn't attend either meeting.
DeVaughn said funding cuts the past three years have hindered the agency, with its state money cut by $129 million during that time and the agency forced to lose about 1,000 employees during the same time period.
Lawmakers for the current fiscal year cut the agency's state appropriation by 1.1 percent to $537 million; most state agencies received cuts of 7 percent as lawmakers wrestled with a significant revenue shortfall caused by the recession and lower natural gas prices.
Yarbrough said DHS has complied with most findings of a 197-page audit, released in February 2009 at a cost to the state of $420,000.
All the 25 recommendations have been implemented, except those that involve additional money, such as increased pay for foster parents, he said.
“The DHS has implemented the recommendations of the report that could be implementable except for those that would require an increased budget.”
The meetings by Morrissette and Sanders were not called by a standing committee or House leadership and are considered informal.
Yarbrough and Peck said they want to cooperate with legislators, but it seemed unreasonable to expect them to meet with only a handful of lawmakers at a time. Out of 149 lawmakers, four other lawmakers besides Morrissette and Sanders showed up at different times during the three-hour meeting.
Only one other legislator attended Friday's meeting. House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, has named a five-person legislative task force to look into the agency and propose legislation next year to improve its operations.
“The reason that we're here today is because we take this job seriously and we wanted to demonstrate cooperation with those ... officials who also have a passion and an interest to move the agency forward,” Yarbrough said.
“I don't know that we are accountable to this group here, but we do feel accountable to the Legislature.”
About a dozen citizens at Tuesday's session told commissioners of problems they have had with DHS, mostly dealing with child welfare cases.
Morrissette asked commissioners to forward their concerns to DHS staff.