Legislation was signed into law Thursday that is intended to improve operations of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the care of children it oversees.
“Today is a turning point when we add more safeguards for protecting our children in our state, more accountability, transparency and more funding,” Gov. Mary Fallin said before signing four measures dealing with the state's largest agency.
Flanked by several lawmakers who worked on the legislation during this year's four-month session that ended last week, Fallin said the legislation will help DHS serve children and others in its care more efficiently and effectively.
House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said the legislation provides a “top-to-bottom cultural change” at DHS.
“We knew that it was time to quit talking about the problems facing DHS,” he said. “We knew it was time for action. We knew that we could no longer afford to take a Band-Aid approach to the issues involving the Department of Human Services.”
Some key changes to how the state's largest agency is administered will be left up to voters. Lawmakers passed House Joint Resolution 1092, which asks voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment repealing the Commission for Public Welfare, which was approved by voters in 1936 to oversee DHS. The commission has nine members, each appointed to a nine-year term.
The commission was set up that way to insulate it from political and outside influence, said Rep. Jason Nelson, who led a four-member House of Representatives panel since October to develop changes for DHS after talking with hundreds of agency workers, parents, judges and others who work with the agency.
“It has led to three class-action lawsuits over the last several decades,” said Nelson, R-Oklahoma City. “In some counties, you've got a complete collapse of the child welfare system.”
If voters approve the ballot issue, then House Bill 3137 — which Fallin signed Thursday — would take effect and would require the DHS director to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The DHS commission now hires the director.
HB 3137 also would establish four citizen advisory panels that would oversee DHS operations and administration. The panels, made up of five members each appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, would look at four separate areas — children and family issues, developmental issues, aging issues and the agency's administration.
“These are dramatic changes,” Nelson said. “There was some concern we brought them out late in session, but I do trust the wisdom of the voters.”
Fallin also signed HB 3134, which is intended to eliminate bureaucracy in the child welfare division. The division's policy and operations personnel now operate separately, leading to gaps in services, a lack of accountability and inconsistent application of state law and agency policy, Nelson said.
She also signed HB 3135, which requires DHS to publicly disclose pertinent information about cases of child death or near death by abuse or neglect. It would also have to notify the governor and legislative leadership of the initial investigatory findings. Nelson and others in the others in the working group — Reps. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, Wade Rousselot, D-Okay, and Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore — are working with agency officials, federal officials and national child welfare advocates to ensure that the bill does not violate federal standards.
Additionally, Fallin signed Senate Bill 1979, the funding bill for DHS for the 2013 fiscal year that begins July 1. It includes $50 million of additional funding, of which $25 million is for the Pinnacle Plan, the result of a settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit earlier this year.
The plan addresses 15 areas, including caseload, number of placements and recruitment of foster homes and calls for a series of reforms that include hiring 200 child welfare workers and 40 supervisors, recruiting 1,000 traditional foster families, granting pay raises to foster parents and child welfare workers and eliminating the use of state shelters for young abused and neglected children.
DHS also gets $17 million to replace one-time funding last year.
Denise Northrup, Fallin's chief of staff, said the state is preparing its final draft to a three-person panel overseeing the Pinnacle Plan. It hopes to have its report submitted by the middle of June.
The bills were signed nearly five months after a federal judge in Tulsa approved a class-action settlement agreement intended to create improvements to the state's child-welfare system. The settlement between DHS and New York-based nonprofit Children's Rights creates the panel to oversee progress the state makes.
“Today the agency begins a cultural change that it so desperately needed for so many years,” Steele said. “The signing of these bills marks the end of the status quo at the Department of Human Services. But it does not mark the end of this particular issue. In fact, I believe the real work is just now beginning.”
Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said, “You don't turn around a ship in one session,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “We've got to continue to make sure that we press forward on reforms and make sure that these get implemented.”
DHS Commission Chairman Brad Yarbrough, who attended the bill-signing ceremony, said the legislation “lays a good foundation for future improvements. I'm hopeful that the next legislative session will continue its focus on the kinds of changes needed to serve Oklahomans better.”
Responding to questions, Fallin said she hopes to quickly fill two vacancies on the commission that oversees DHS. Steven Dow and Anne Roberts resigned this week over conflict of interest concerns.
Fallin already was looking at applicants for the commission because Commissioner Richard DeVaughn's term expires in August, Northrup said.
This week's state Ethics Commission reprimand of Dow, for serving as a DHS commissioner at the same time he was the unpaid chief executive officer of a nonprofit agency that contracts with DHS to provide day care and child education services, will not make it harder for the governor's office to find citizens to serve on various boards and commissions, she said. The review process used by the governor's office would have excluded Dow and Roberts, who is director of legislative affairs for a corporation that offers child care services subsidized by DHS, from serving on the commission, Northrup said.
“We thoroughly vet and look for conflicts to begin with,” she said. “We would have identified that as a conflict.”