DHS Director Howard Hendrick is retiring, leaving a $162,750-a-year job after public confidence in his leadership plummeted because of child deaths.
“I've done my best,” he said Tuesday, wiping away tears.
Hendrick, 57, a former state senator, has served as director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services for more than 13 years. He oversees more than 7,000 employees and a more than $2 billion budget.
Hendrick made his emotional announcement at the monthly meeting of DHS commissioners, who will choose his replacement. He said he will step down from his daily responsibilities Feb. 29. He said he will retire officially after taking vacation time.
“I'm going to go do something else,” he said. “I don't even know what I'm going to do. But I think if I don't stop now, I'm not going to stop — for a long time.”
Waited for lawsuit resolution
Hendrick said he could have retired more than a year ago but wanted to stay until a federal class-action lawsuit critical of the state's foster care system was resolved.
Commissioners this month approved a revised settlement of the lawsuit. A federal judge has scheduled a hearing on the settlement for Feb. 29 in Tulsa.
Hendrick stopped at one point in his announcement and tried to fight back tears. A woman shouted out, “We love you, Howard.” Another woman said, “We do.”
“The hardest part is the people,” Hendrick said in a high, strained voice when he was able to continue. “I just love the people.”
Commissioners and the audience gave him a standing ovation. Hendrick then walked around the horseshoe-shaped commission table, receiving lengthy hugs from many commissioners.
In a separate 11-page letter to employees, Hendrick wrote, “There is never a ‘perfect time' to leave. There will always be unfinished business. However, this seems to be the right time for me.”
He also told employees in the letter that “a couple of firms have already expressed an interest in me working with them, and I want to see if they fit with what I believe I should do.”
He thanked employees, writing, “You choose to make a difference with our most vulnerable neighbors even though your efforts will likely never receive the recognition they so richly deserve.”
Hendrick on Friday had denied in Tulsa that he had any immediate plans to resign. He told reporters Tuesday he was not pressured into retirement. He said he made the final decision over the weekend.
“I've got peace about leaving,” he said.
Hendrick talked during the meeting Tuesday and later to reporters about how the massive welfare agency has had to meet increased needs for its services without adequate funding.
“As the economy gets tougher and the number of people we serve increases and our costs go up and the dollars come down, the convergence of those three economic realities makes it very difficult to deliver the services,” Hendrick told reporters. “We have the smallest staff we've had in 13 years. ... There's just a tremendous amount of strain right now.”
Hendrick said he was proudest of his agency efforts to get children adopted.