WITH the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Human Services, work has begun on a plan to improve Oklahoma's child welfare system. If truly meaningful improvement is to occur in this area, DHS needs fresh ideas and new energy at the top.
Director Howard Hendrick is a good man with much to be proud of, and we have long supported his work. But after 13 years in charge, and in light of the events involving DHS in the past several months, it is best that he step aside and allow the agency a new beginning.
We don't make this call lightly. Under Hendrick, Oklahoma's food stamp program has become a model of excellence. More children are being adopted than when he took over. He has promoted initiatives that allow older Oklahomans to stay in their homes longer, saving the state money. He's been adept at leveraging and stretching the federal dollars that comprise the bulk of the DHS budget.
We know this because Hendrick often touts the agency's successes, whether they be employees honored for their work or programs cited by national groups. When the news isn't so good, though, DHS has been less than forthcoming and slow to respond. National statistics that place the department in a bad light are dismissed as not pertinent to Oklahoma.
We've seen this especially in the area of child welfare. Calls from the media for information about cases in which children have died while in the DHS system have too often been slow-played or simply rejected. Privacy laws are the most common explanation given. Those laws are important and should be obeyed. But when children are dying, the public deserves more than a game of hide-and-seek.
Hendrick allowed that culture to take root. And until recently, that was OK because most of the members of the board that oversees DHS weren't doing enough serious oversight. They attended monthly meetings, listened to Hendrick give his update about the agency — often statistics-driven presentations about such things as the numbers of Oklahomans on food stamps — and then headed home.
So when DHS was sued in 2008 by an out-of-state nonprofit, Children's Rights Inc., over the state's foster care program, Hendrick hired outside counsel and the board never blinked. The bill for those attorneys is approaching $7 million; the tab for the plaintiffs lawyers isn't yet known.
Hendrick vowed from the beginning to fight the lawsuit because, he said, he was sure his agency would win in court. The Oklahoman supported that decision. Our chief concerns were about the plaintiffs' motives, and the potential drain a protracted lawsuit would have on DHS.
But as more stories appeared about breakdowns in the DHS system contributing to children dying, it became more difficult to defend a long and costly lawsuit. As stories appeared about DHS commissioners doing little or nothing to hold Hendrick's feet to the fire about the agency's handling of those cases, it became clear that changes to the governing board were needed — and some have been made.
Commissioners who questioned Hendrick about Oklahoma's poor federal ranking in some child welfare categories were told that those statistics can't be taken at face value because each state collects and categorizes data differently. This reflects Hendrick's loyalty to his employees, most of whom do good work in a highly challenging environment.
That loyalty was clear, too, in Hendrick's reaction to the lawsuit settlement. “The strength of our defense and the excellent work our child welfare workers do every day changed the conversation about how these kinds of cases should be resolved,” he said. The ability to end the lawsuit without a consent decree, he said, stemmed from “the strength of our defense and the national experts prepared to testify in our defense.”
Hendrick said DHS would “continue to make improvements even after compliance with the future plan has been completed.” But his inclination might be to balk at some ideas — just as he did about providing the media with a copy of the lawsuit settlement agreement. People with knowledge of the situation told The Oklahoman that arm-twisting by commissioners was needed to get Hendrick to include the agreement as part of the news release. That sort of intransigence can't happen going forward.
Oklahoma's many social ills make directing the Department of Human Services the toughest job in state government. Our teen pregnancy rate, our high number of out-of-wedlock births, the rampant use of methamphetamine in Oklahoma, our poverty rate — all these contribute to the dysfunction that produces bruised and battered children. No improvement plan can affect those factors.
But a strong plan might improve the way DHS handles cases and tracks the vulnerable children in its care. The settlement agreement calls for an improvement plan to be developed in the coming months by DHS staff, the agency's commissioners, legislators and the governor's office. The head of DHS must be out front, leading those changes.
Hendrick is a former state senator who was named in 1998 by former Gov. Frank Keating to run DHS, which has about 7,000 full-time employees. In the private sector, DHS would rank as one of the top two or three Oklahoma-based companies. Hendrick is the second consecutive former legislator to hold a job that should next time go to a professional with a solid background in social services and agency administration.
Legislators should also consider making the director's job more manageable by splitting off parts of the agency. The naming of Hendrick's successor should result from a national search. After all, the agency's problems on Hendrick's watch were the subject of national scrutiny.
When Hendrick visited with our editorial board in September, he didn't answer the question of how long he planned to stay on the job. He suggested, though, that he wanted to see the Children's Rights lawsuit to its conclusion. That has happened.
The time is right for him to step aside. The agency needs new energy, enthusiasm and ideas. And the place to start is at the top.
In the private sector, DHS would rank as one of Oklahoma's largest companies. Hendrick is the second consecutive former legislator to hold a job that next time should go to a professional with a solid background in social services and agency administration.