NEARLY nine months after the former head of the Department of Human Services announced he was leaving, and 3 1/2 months later than state officials hoped to fill the vacancy, Oklahoma finally has a new DHS director — we think.
The job was offered Wednesday to Ed Lake, who retired last year from Tennessee's Department of Human Services where he spent four decades, moving up the ranks to become deputy commissioner. Lake told Oklahoma's human services commissioners that he wanted to review the job offer with his wife before giving a firm yes or no.
“It's a big deal,” Lake told The Oklahoman's Randy Ellis, “and I want to be sure I've covered all my bases and thought through it carefully.”
He's right. This is a big deal. Not just for his wife, who presumably would be uprooted after spending so many years in Tennessee, but also for DHS, which is going through a period of transition following considerable turmoil.
The man Lake would replace, Howard Hendrick, announced his resignation in January after 13-plus years in charge of the state's largest agency. Hendrick had come under increasing pressure for the agency's handling of the deaths of children who had been in DHS care. The board that oversees DHS also was criticized late in 2011 for its work.
If he accepts the job, which the state had hoped to fill by July 1, Lake will be expected to guide DHS's five-year reform plan that was created following the state's settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2008 over DHS's foster care program. Among other things, the plan requires that more child welfare workers be hired, more foster parents be recruited and the state rely less frequently on shelters for neglected children.
Lake also faces the prospect of getting a new boss soon. A state question on the ballot Nov. 6 would dissolve the oversight board and replace it with four citizen advisory panels. The measure would allow the governor to appoint the DHS director. So Lake could be answering directly to Gov. Mary Fallin, who met with him Wednesday and reportedly is high on him.
Lake says he's “a young 64.” He'll need to be as he addresses the challenges ahead for the agency that deals not only with child welfare, but with food stamps, elder care, adoptions and other programs. He clearly recognizes those challenges: “Let's face it, this job is going to be difficult for anybody. If anybody said otherwise, they don't understand the circumstances.”
Lake has been in the mix for the job from the beginning. In early May, he was identified by a search committee as one of two finalists. A few weeks later, though, DHS hired a professional executive personnel search firm to scour the country for more candidates.
After all that, Lake is the choice. There are two ways to view this. One is that the second search didn't turn up many more suitable candidates. The other is that no matter where the search team looked, Lake continued to stand out.
Comments by commission Chairman Wes Lane, who called Lake “the right man at the right time, right background, right credentials, right credibility,” indicate that the latter was the case.
We join other Oklahomans in hoping that Lane is correct.