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.