IMPLEMENTING changes that might make a meaningful difference at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is like turning a ship at sea — it takes a while. But the effort is under way, we think in the right direction.
A couple of developments last week speak to this point. One was the appointment of one of DHS's most vocal critics at the Legislature, state Rep. Richard Morrissette, to be the No. 2 man on the House budget subcommittee on human services.
Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, has in the past offered legislation that would split up the mammoth DHS, arguing that it's presently too big and too varied to do the job adequately across the board. Indeed DHS is huge, responsible for such things as elder care and food stamps and, most importantly, the state's foster children.
The latter has put DHS and its governing board under klieg lights in recent months. The deaths of children who were in the state system, and systemic breakdowns in some of those cases, have lawmakers and others taking a closer look at the agency. Testimony by some DHS commissioners showed they weren't all that engaged in oversight of the agency, which produced more criticism and prompted Morrissette to publicly quiz several commissioners about the deaths of kids.
On the appropriations subcommittee Morrissette will replace Republican Rep. Jason Nelson, who was named by Speaker Kris Steele to be subcommittee chairman. Steele said he knows Morrissette “won't be shy about putting forth bold ideas. When it comes to DHS, that's precisely what we need.”
The appointment is further proof that Steele, R-Shawnee, who himself has been critical of DHS's handling of some child welfare cases in his district, is committed to effecting change at DHS before his time at the Legislature ends in 2012 due to term limits.
Meantime a new committee within the Human Services Commission is about to begin the work of reviewing child deaths. The committee, headed by new board member Wes Lane, will focus for now on the cases of 18 children who died of abuse or neglect since Jan. 1, 2010. These kids were either in DHS custody or officials with the agency had received complaints in the previous year that the children were being abused or neglected. Another 13 cases could be added to this initial list.
The committee hopes to determine whether policy and procedure changes are needed. “We want the public to be satisfied that we are at least doing everything humanly possible” to keep children safe, Lane said.
While tolerance for DHS failings is at its end, the fact specific steps are being taken is encouraging. Where the issue is protecting children, slow and steady progress is better than no progress at all.