Despite new leadership and a series of reforms, the state Department of Human Services still is having some of the same old problems with its employees, records show.
More than 125 DHS employees were fired, suspended without pay or demoted last year, the agency's disciplinary records show.
Child welfare specialists were disciplined for falsifying investigations, embezzlement, neglect of duty, sleeping on the job and, in one instance, picking up the wrong baby from a day care.
“DHS faces the same challenges as any large company in that we will always have a few employees at any given time who are being disciplined for any number of reasons,” DHS Director Ed Lake told The Oklahoman.
Lake, who was hired in October 2012, said the disciplinary actions “demonstrate we do not tolerate these behaviors and we hold our employees to a very high standard.”
“We want a highly skilled, professional, compassionate and trustworthy workforce in DHS. I can say with confidence that the majority of our 7,100 employees exhibit those qualities on a daily basis. When employees violate our trust, intentionally disobey policy or are abusive to the people we serve, we will not hesitate to take appropriate disciplinary actions,” Lake said.
DHS put itself back in the public spotlight last week when it revealed it has started steps to fire two employees over the 2013 death of a special-needs child, Quinten Wood.
An older sister said DHS failed to respond appropriately to her concerns that Wood, 15, was being neglected. She said she called DHS 22 times to check on Wood. Lake said the two employees “clearly violated agency policies and reasonable child protection practices.”
DHS will not identify the two employees until the firings are final. An Oklahoma City police detective is investigating the workers to see if there was any criminal wrongdoing.
The disciplinary records for the last year show other instances where children were endangered by employee misconduct.
A child abuse hotline worker was fired in May after failing to immediately act on a report that a newborn was in imminent danger, the records show.
“The parents of this newborn have had their parental rights terminated due to serious abuse/neglect of previous children,” the worker was told in a May 14 dismissal letter. “Due to your failure in following hotline protocol ... child welfare staff was unable to locate the newborn. At this time, the whereabouts of the newborn remain unknown and he remains in danger of serious child abuse and neglect.”
A DHS spokeswoman said the infant later was located and now is in foster care.
An Oklahoma County child welfare specialist was fired Feb. 6, 2013, after a supervisor “found multiple cases in which you falsified agency records in your documentation regarding the risk and safety of children,” the records show.
“You have exhibited a blatant disregard for the vulnerable families for which you are held responsible. You have demonstrated a gross malfeasance of your professional duties and as such have placed children at risk,” the worker was told in his dismissal letter.
In one case of possible sexual abuse, he claimed to have interviewed two children. Both children later told another worker they had never spoken to him.
The child welfare specialist who picked up the wrong child was suspended for three days without pay.
“You left the daycare with a baby girl instead of the baby boy, a child that you have picked up weekly for ... at least 12 weeks,” the worker was told in a Dec. 13 disciplinary letter.
“Before exiting the daycare parking lot, you contacted the foster mother asking if she had cut the child's hair and pierced his ears. The foster mother asked if you had the wrong child. You said, ‘Yes,' and ‘laughed' about it,” the letter states. “The foster mother reported ... that you were very rude when you contacted her and appeared to be yelling while questioning her about the child's physical appearance.
“The foster mother further stated this was your normal behavior. As a result of her experience, the foster mother stated she would discontinue as a foster mother if you remained on this case.”
A child welfare supervisor was fired in May for failure to take action and provide oversight that “left children in danger and ultimately resulted in harm to children,” the records show.
In one investigation of possible child neglect, the supervisor failed to make sure a worker checked the sleeping arrangements for a 4-year-old boy, a 1-year-old boy and a baby boy, the records show. The baby boy later died of asphyxiation after being left in a portable crib with a bottle, six blankets and two pillows, the records show.
DHS is in the second year of a five-year plan to improve its child welfare operations. The so-called Pinnacle Plan has involved hiring more child welfare workers, increasing their pay and trying to reduce their caseloads.
It also has involved recruiting more foster parents so that children in DHS care do not stay in overcrowded shelters.