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Oklahoma child welfare system poised for change

After years of failures in Oklahoma's child welfare system that often ended in child deaths, the state appears poised for change.

“Does it take a pickup load of dead babies before we decide to act?”

Those words — spoken in frustration by the chairman of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth — captured what many have been demanding to know.

For years, The Oklahoman has investigated and reported stories detailing how state children have died from child abuse.

Many deaths appeared preventable, having occurred after multiple complaints of abuse and neglect had been reported to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

While the public voiced outrage, the commissioners who oversee DHS initially appeared indifferent — never discussing the deaths in public meetings or addressing what could have been done to prevent them.

When the Legislature commissioned a $420,000 taxpayer-funded study on how to fix DHS problems, many commissioners admitted they didn't even bother to read it.

Recently, things have begun to change.

Gov. Mary Fallin — citing the “appearance of lax oversight” — appointed two new commissioners in September. They were placed in charge of two new committees that will review child deaths and examine the organizational structure and oversight responsibilities of the commission.

Prepared to act

State Rep. Richard Morrissette, vice chairman of a House subcommittee on human services, said lawmakers also have heard the public's concerns and are prepared to act.

“I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make some serious changes,” Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said of DHS. “We need to streamline it, make it more efficient, mean and lean so it serves its mission statement.”

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said the Legislature has adopted dozens of reform measures since 2007 in response to specific child deaths and system breakdowns. However, he acknowledged being frustrated by the Legislature's past inability to bring accountability to the agency because DHS is such a politically powerful bureaucracy.

Steele likened many past reforms to “putting a bandage on a wound that's bigger than the bandage.”

“We can no longer afford to be reactive. It's time for us to be proactive,” he said. “Today and moving forward, we are strongly considering comprehensive reforms, systemic changes.”

To identify root problems, state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, has led a committee that has been traveling statewide, talking to front-line workers to gather reform ideas.

“There seems to be a disconnect between leadership and front-line workers,” Steele said.

“We're at the grassroots level and very much hearing from the ground up what we need to do to make fundamental changes.”

Focus areas

Steele said lawmakers are focusing on four main areas: DHS's governance structure, personnel policies, agency structure and resource realignment.

“Currently we have a nine-member citizen board that is appointed by the governor,” he said, noting members of that DHS governing board serve nine-year terms. “I'm not convinced that is the most effective governance structure.”

A public vote would be required to change that since the board was created by the Oklahoma Constitution, he said.

Personnel policies need to be developed that reward good workers while making it possible to dismiss underperforming personnel, he said.

And the organizational structure of DHS is “hard to follow” and makes it difficult to hold people accountable, he said.

Nelson, chairman of the House human services subcommittee, said a series of reforms may need to be adopted over the next three legislative sessions to accomplish what lawmakers believe needs to be done.

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