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DHS workers disciplined for wide range of reasons

House speaker calls misconduct inexcusable.
BY NOLAN CLAY, RANDY ELLIS AND ROBBY TRAMMELL Staff Writers Published: December 25, 2011

One DHS worker stole gift cards meant for foster children at Christmas.

Other workers at the state Department of Human Services have been caught physically abusing children in shelters, taunting mentally disabled adults, stealing from the elderly or sexually harassing co-workers.

More than once, the outcome of DHS workers' wrongdoing has been tragic — children died who might have been saved.

Workers have faked that they completed investigations of child abuse or neglect complaints when they actually interviewed no one. One child-welfare specialist lied about checking on a report a 10-year-old girl was being molested by her stepbrother, allowing the abusive situation to continue throughout a summer.

Another lied about trying to see a child at a mental health treatment center. The worker said it was a common practice in her county to falsify visit attempts.

Workers also have lied about visiting foster homes to check on foster children's safety.

These examples of employee misconduct are found in disciplinary actions over the last four years at the state agency that provides welfare services to the needy, vulnerable adults and neglected and abused children.

“Oh my,” House Speaker Kris Steele said after The Oklahoman told him of some of the misconduct. “The situations that you described are inexcusable ... we need to know what may be causing that and we sure need to know what we can do to stop it, moving forward.”

The Oklahoman examined the records as part of its continuing look into the agency, which has been repeatedly accused of not doing enough to protect the well-being of children and others in its care.

The records show DHS fired or suspended without pay more than 200 workers in that time. The suspensions ranged from a day to 60 days without pay.

The total does not include those who quit rather than be fired.

The agency currently employs about 7,000 permanent, full-time employees. Almost 1,300 are child-welfare workers. The starting salary for a child-welfare specialist ranges from $2,381 a month to $3,466 a month.

Agency turnover is high. In the last four years, more than 2,400 employees have resigned or retired, officials said.

DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said, “DHS is no different than any other large agency or private company and we are certainly not immune to employees violating policy or committing criminal acts.”

She said that during the same four years that some workers were disciplined “there have been hundreds of employees honored with national, state and agency awards for their excellent customer service, leadership skills, compassionate acts, and for literally saving lives.”

“Our employees work in jobs every day that most people would not have the patience or fortitude to perform,” she said.

Dishonesty was a common reason for the disciplinary actions. Several workers admitted falsifying records. Some even lied to judges or failed to show up for court.

Also, the records show, DHS officials often gave workers chance after chance to get better before finally firing them.

The records show a wide variety of misconduct. Sometimes, workers were told that their failures had endangered children. Sometimes, they were told they had brought embarrassment to the agency.

One child-welfare specialist explained she hadn't even started 15 investigations into reports children were in danger because she was too overworked. She had blown off one complaint for 55 days.

One worker was disciplined for instigating fights between teenage girls at a group home.

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