Copyright © 2011, The Oklahoman
As more and more children die in DHS care, commissioners there have ignored an audit calling for reform, belittled a federal lawsuit alleging children are being hurt and rejected calls for special meetings to address the ongoing tragedy.
Several commissioners at Oklahoma's Department of Human Services recently admitted under oath in depositions for the class-action lawsuit that they never read or only skimmed the taxpayer-funded $420,000 audit commissioned by the state Legislature to help the agency reform its child-welfare services.
“My eyes would have glazed over if I had,” said one commissioner, Linda Weeks, of the 197-page report that came out in 2009.
Some commissioners also admitted they haven't paid close attention to the multimillion class-action lawsuit by a children's-advocacy group that accuses the agency of actually harming foster children.
“My initial reaction was that our legal department would probably take care of it. I didn't probably take it as serious as I should have,” Commissioner Michael Peck said.
And commissioners refused one member's requests to hold special meetings to discuss high-profile deaths of children who had been under the agency's care.
Commissioner Steven Dow, who requested the special meetings, said commission Chairman Richard DeVaughn ignored his email requests.
“It seems to me that the commission, by and large, is just asleep at the wheel,” Dow told The Oklahoman.
Chairman DeVaughn strongly denied Dow's contention, saying “I would say it's 180 degrees from that.”
“The commission hires the director and establishes rules and policies,” he said. “When things go on, we're informed.”
DeVaughn said he rejected requests to discuss high-profile deaths at special meetings because it would be improper for the commission to interfere with investigations of agency employees or make statements that could interfere with their civil rights.
DHS has faced widespread criticism for years over preventable child deaths and currently is under fire for its mishandling of the Serenity Deal case. The 5-year-old girl was beaten to death in June after being placed with her father at DHS workers' recommendation, despite having suffered injuries while in his care.
The commission, itself, is now drawing intense scrutiny. Critics question whether the commissioners who oversee the agency have abdicated their responsibilities and trust too much in their longtime director, Howard Hendrick.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin spoke of an “appearance of lax oversight on the part of DHS commissioners” Wednesday in announcing her appointment of two new members to the nine-member commission. The governor appointed former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane and Oklahoma City businessman Brad Yarbrough and asked Yarbrough to serve as chairman.
Sworn testimony by six of the commission's nine members in the ongoing federal class-action lawsuit over foster care reveals example after example of commissioners' oversight lapses.
DHS has failed for years to get accreditation from a national organization, despite a state law requiring it, testimony reveals.
Hendrick, the director, blamed budget cuts for the agency's decision eight or nine years ago to quit following the law.
“I haven't told the current commission,” he testified. “My memory is this was discussed at the time these budgets were reduced, but I can't be for certain that it was.”
Several commissioners testified DHS administrators never told them the agency failed to meet all seven national standards for the safety and well-being of children in its custody.
DeVaughn told The Oklahoman that no state meets all seven standards so the failure wasn't as significant as it might sound.
Commissioners also couldn't recall being informed that for eight years straight, beginning in 2000, Oklahoma ranked among the five worst states in the country regarding abuse of children in care of the state.
Commissioners admit in testimony that they haven't conducted a formal evaluation of Hendrick's performance in years. Their own bylaws require an annual evaluation. Hendrick says he is paid $162,000 a year.
Failure of some commissioners to read the $420,000 child welfare audit has upset some state lawmakers who felt compelled to request it because of failures they had witnessed within the agency.
“That's indicative of the larger problem of lax oversight on the part of the DHS commission,” said John Estus, spokesman for House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.
The $420,000 Hornby Zeller audit was completed in 2009 and recommended 25 specific changes to improve child welfare in Oklahoma. Among other things, the consultants suggested DHS should phase out its two large publicly funded shelters, redefine the standard for removing children from homes to “an imminent safety threat” and establish a centralized hotline for people to report abuse and neglect.
The audit served as a blueprint for several reforms later enacted by the Legislature.
Despite the attention lawmakers paid to the audit, several commissioners testified they could remember little about it.
“I don't remember the Hornby Zeller report,” said Commissioner George Young.
“I told you I'd perused the report. I still haven't read the report,” Chairman DeVaughn told attorneys.
Commission Vice Chairman Aneta Wilkinson said she couldn't recall any of the consultant's recommendations.
“If I tried to get familiar with every piece of information that was — that was given to me that DHS is involved in, I would be a superwoman,” Wilkinson said. “So I have to — I have to rely on those in charge to know what they're doing.”
Some commissioners also said they never read the 2008 lawsuit criticizing the agency's foster care until they had to give sworn testimony in the case this year.
“I read portions of it ... Not the entire complaint,” Young said.
Commissioners Peck and Linda Weeks said they didn't read the allegations in the lawsuit until recently when they were told they were going to be questioned under oath by opposing attorneys.
Estus said House Speaker Steele is concerned commissioners haven't followed the lawsuit more closely.
“The speaker has been very concerned that the commission has not been as engaged as it needs to be in the Children's Rights lawsuit,” Estus said. “The lawsuit has the potential to have very catastrophic consequences not just for DHS, but for all of state government.”
Chairman DeVaughn said he believes he has been adequately informed about the lawsuit.
“I think the state has excellent defenses to all of it,” he said.
Despite intense questioning by attorneys about whether Director Hendrick had failed to inform them about important matters, most commissioners voiced strong loyalty toward the director.
“I feel Howard is a very outstanding person and a very competent and excellent director,” Commissioner Peck said. “I can't imagine we could have anybody that would do better than him.”
Commissioner Dow was the only one of the six commissioners to rip the commission for its failure to demand accountability, describing the commission as “quite non-participatory and very weak.”
The agency's failure to meet any of the seven national child welfare standards is “appalling and unacceptable,” he said.
“I have given serious concern to whether or not I should surrender and resign my role because I feel like I am supposed to be exercising a degree of oversight for the work of the department and I'm not satisfied that the information that I'm given on a routine basis allows me to do that and meet my legal responsibilities,” he stated.
Dow said he asked to serve on the agency's budget committee, but Chairman DeVaughn rejected his request, saying the committee was already full and if Dow were added, the committee would be subject to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
In DeVaughn's sworn testimony, he admitted limiting membership on committees to four and under to avoid having to comply with the Open Meeting Act.
“I don't think that's the only reason, but that is a — a good reason,” DeVaughn testified.
Dow criticized DeVaughn's reasoning.
“I expressed to him that I was very troubled by that — that it seemed to me that our deliberations around all matters, but particularly around financial matters, should be transparent and we should be very open,” Dow said.
“If I tried to get familiar with every piece of information that was — that was given to me that DHS is involved in, I would be a superwoman.”