Speaker Steele, Rep. Nelson lead drive for DHS reform, call for more involvement from churches and other non-government groups
Flanked by officials struggling with failures and inefficiencies at the Department of Human Services, (DHS), Speaker of the House Kris Steele on Wednesday (October 19) formally empowered a bi-partisan group of legislators who have been meeting for several months to delve into operations at the agency.
Steele, Nelson and DHS Commissioner Brad Yarborough said, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, that the issues dogging DHS require more than a government response.
Yarborough, who explicitly apologized for widely publicized agency failures, said, “The best place for individuals in need is a health family. Government can’t do that.” He continued, “The faith community ought to be the second safety net.” He said, “Government is really not the best place to get healthy families.” Yarborough previously led the state office of Faith-Based Initiatives, now part of DHS.
State Rep. Pam Peterson of Tulsa, another member of the House of Representatives Task Force, described a wide range of faith-based work on adoption and foster care issues, and predicted intensification of such efforts.
DHS Director Howard Hendrick said more churches need to step up, but he pointed to current examples of deep church involvement in foster care and better parenting issues. He noted, “Families are incredibly different than in 1936. The economy is not that far from where we were in 1936.”
Republicans Nelson and Peterson, along with Democrat Hamilton, are serving on the task force with Republican Rep. Pat Ownbey of Ardmore and Democratic Rep. Wade Rousselot of Okay.
In response to questions from reporters, Steele reviewed changes to DHS policy or practices made in recent years. He characterized these steps as “incremental reforms,” but stressed more changes are needed.
Yet, Steele agreed, many recommendations flowing from a 2009 audit of the agency remain unimplemented. He commented, “The status quo ends today.”
Nelson at one point, responding to a question about personnel structures at DHS, said, “The agency might be top heavy. Maybe it’s even middle-heavy. I don’t think you can say it is bottom heavy.” Over the long run, he said, more spending may be one of the steps needed to improve agency performance. DHS has slowly dropped from 8,000 employees to 7,200 today, he reported.
In prepared remarks, Rep. Nelson said, “There will be no sitting in hearings making motions and watching PowerPoints all day. DHS faces serious challenges that necessitate us getting out of the Capitol and into the field.” He characterized the panel’s past and continued field work as “outside-the-box.”
Zearley said, “We appreciate these representatives for their willingness to get out of the Capitol to spend time with the workers who are on the ground protecting Oklahoma’s children. The front line employees’ unique perspective and their experience will be valuable in this critical process.”
Governor Mary Fallin, who put Yarborough and former Oklahoma County District Attorney West Lane on the commission a few weeks ago, said in a statement those two men were put on the governing panel to increase the agency’s “accountability, transparency and efficiency.” She supports the House effort to examine the agency’s operations and said, in her statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, “The current results are unacceptable.”
Bisbee and her group are working with the state government’s Commission on Children and Youth on a task force aiming to improve foster care.
The deaths of Serenity Deal and Ahonesty Hicks, a pair of children under DHS supervision who were killed after being returned to parents or guardians with troubled histories, have in some ways become the faces of the current controversy about the agency’s effectiveness. Although not named, they were referenced directly and indirectly several times at Wednesday’s press conference.
He concluded by saying, “What’s different in this effort is that I don’t remember a time when everything was and is on the table. Anything that needs to be changed will be on the table for consideration.”