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DHS commissioners tell Oklahoma lawmakers they are working to improve agency

BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: October 26, 2011

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.

25 recommendations

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.