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.
He said more than 16,000 have been adopted from foster care since he became director.
The agency has been criticized repeatedly for years after children in its care were killed even though DHS workers had been warned about abuse.
The criticism intensified last year after a 5-year-old girl, Serenity Deal, was murdered by her father in Oklahoma City.
Serenity died in June from a severe head injury less than a month after she began living with her father at the recommendation of DHS workers. Serenity was placed with her dad even though she was injured twice in January 2011 during overnight visits with him.
DHS subsequently suspended four workers involved with the case. Two were later fired, one committed suicide and the fourth quit.
In his letter to employees Tuesday, Hendrick wrote, “While some have been critical of some performance in child welfare, the prevention efforts our agency and others have taken have been extremely successful.”
The agency also faced criticism last year because of disclosures in the federal class-action lawsuit that DHS commissioners had exercised little oversight of decisions by Hendrick and other DHS officials.
In an editorial Jan. 15, The Oklahoman called for Hendrick to step aside because the agency “needs new energy, enthusiasm and ideas.”
In a brief statement, Gov. Mary Fallin thanked Hendrick for his many years of public service and wished him the best.
House Speaker Kris Steele praised Hendrick for his leadership in improving the adoption process in Oklahoma. Steele, R-Shawnee, said Hendrick also has done a lot to update technology and to improve child support collections and food stamp distribution.
Steele acknowledged meeting with Hendrick last week to discuss the director's future.
“I had a discussion with Director Hendrick, and maybe other legislators did, as well,” Steele said. “We talked about his current situation, and I affirmed his contributions to the agency. ... He is a fine man. But we also talked about the potential need for a fresh start.”
Steele pointed to a lack of cooperation with the Legislature as one of Hendrick's weaknesses. The speaker said he hopes that is an area that will improve once a new director is selected.
The DHS commission's chairman, Brad Yarbrough, praised Hendrick for his faith in God, compassion, intellect and service.
Yarbrough also praised the DHS workforce, saying he was confident workers would meet and solve the challenges of the future. “It will be a team effort,” he said.
Hendrick said he plans to read books, spend time with his grandchildren and take some time to contemplate what to do next before taking on another career challenge.
Hendrick stayed much longer in his position than officials in similar jobs in other states.
In his letter to employees, Hendrick wrote, “The average tenure of a state human services director nationally is about two to four years. Occasionally, some directors stay for seven to 10 years. The main motivation for my staying for 13-and-a-half years is the inspiring and creative work I have seen so many of you do for so many vulnerable families.”