State Department of Human Services Chairman Brad Yarbrough challenged agency employees Tuesday to focus on providing excellent customer service as the agency embarks on an ambitious plan to recruit hundreds of new foster parents and adoptive families.
“It is more critical now than ever that those who are responsible for our foster care system ... (perform) with a great deal of urgency ... with a customer service orientation,” he said at Tuesday's commission meeting.
Starting next month, DHS plans to launch a series of television public service announcements in which Gov. Mary Fallin will urge Oklahomans to become foster or adoptive parents, Yarbrough said.
The television ads are expected to add to the influx of Oklahomans who have inquired about becoming foster parents in response to February news articles in The Oklahoman and other publications, he said. Those articles described the plight of babies and other children being cared for in overcrowded state shelters because of a shortage of foster homes.
Handling increased inquiries is expected to be a major challenge.
The Oklahoman reported Sunday that DHS has a four- to six-month backlog of home studies that need to be completed for foster home applicants. It also was reported that Oklahoma Lawyers for Children had agreed to train and oversee volunteers to help the agency catch up on the backlog.
Yarbrough said Oklahoma Lawyers for Children initially had hoped it could get 32 volunteers but that 65 volunteers had come forward by Monday, and the number was
“We need community resources more than ever to find out where the logjams are in our process,” Yarbrough said. “If we have volunteer groups, community groups that can help us, we need to get them identified and get them identified quickly, because this kind of campaign is going to drive hundreds and hundreds of people to our foster care system, and we've got to get it right and treat them right.”
Over the 9½-month period that ended in mid April, 5,913 individuals had inquired about becoming foster care parents, and 1,471 had been approved, DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said. An additional 2,587 had inquired about becoming adoptive parents, and 612 homes were approved and opened for adoption, Powell said.
Yarbrough said he hopes DHS employees can help a higher percentage of people complete the process. Yarbrough said he and his wife served as foster parents for two teenage daughters.
Treatment of foster parents by DHS workers has been an issue for years, with many complaining to The Oklahoman that they have had difficulty reaching DHS workers when issues have arisen.
Yarbrough's call for a focus on customer service was echoed by interim agency director Preston Doerflinger.
“There is no room in this agency for mediocrity,” Doerflinger said. “The mission of this agency is too critical to have people who do not want to perform at the very highest level every day.”
Doerflinger said it will take a grassroots effort from agency employees to improve the system, and most employees seem to be rallying to that concept.
In other action, Yarbrough announced that officials have narrowed the list of applicants for the vacant DHS director's position from about 55 to three. The three top candidates have been interviewed by the selection committee, he said.
Yarbrough said he was “impressed with the competency of all three” but said officials are considering hiring an executive search firm to see whether an even better candidate might be available.
Officials have said they hope to name a new director by the end of June to replace Howard Hendrick, who announced his retirement in January.
Also Tuesday, Marq Youngblood announced his retirement as chief operating officer of the DHS Human Services Centers after 32 years with the agency. Youngblood was responsible for oversight of the Field Operations, Family Support Services and Children and Family Services divisions.