Oklahoma Lawmakers Begin Overhaul Of DHS... Again

Thursday, October 20th 2011, 6:15 pm
By: News On 6

Ashli Sims, News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma lawmakers launched another effort to overhaul the child welfare agency Wednesday, but they haven't finished the work they started back in 2008.

Why hasn't the $400,000 plan been fully implemented?

In 2008 - with more than 12,000 kids in its care – The Oklahoma Department of Human Services went under the microscope.

Lawmakers spent $400,000 of your taxpayer dollars on a top-to-bottom 127-page performance audit.

Read The Audit's Recommendations

"I think we spent five months with independent eyes auditors looked at what was right and what was wrong and we'll move forward to implement those recommendations," said Representative Ron Peters, in 2008.

They passed a bill aimed to do just that in 2009, but critics said at the time the new law didn't go far enough.

"The iron is hot, let's get in there while it's hot if we don't do it, this thing will pass by the wayside and it'll be years again before we get anything done," said Representative Richard Morrissette, in 2008.

Not all of the recommendations in the 2008 audit have been done. And even the ones that have been done, have only recently been completed.

DHS did shrink the foster care population by 30 percent, as recommended. But the report called for DHS to phase out its two large-scale shelters in Oklahoma City and the Laura Dester Shelter in Tulsa, because they're impersonal and frightening for children.

Both are still in operation, though the agency says it was trying to keep shelter populations low, below 25 children.

"We were able to move in and make a lot of progress on the shelters for a while," said Howard Hendrick, DHS Director.

Last May, overcrowding at the Oklahoma City shelter prompted a visit from the fire marshal. The agency did set up a statewide hotline to report abuse and neglect in 45 counties. The last 32 are set to be online by mid-January.

"So there's a lot to making those kinds of changes than just turning on a switch and saying you guys go to work over here now," Hendrick said.

And lawmakers had their own directives from the audit. They were supposed to increase payments for foster care families to boost placements and adopt performance-based raises for caseworkers to reduce turnover.

"We're very aware of that. If we could wave a magic wand and increase payments to foster parents and increase salaries for frontline workers and reduce caseloads we absolutely would do that," said House Speaker Kris Steele.

The lawmaker who's leading the call for this latest round of reform at DHS admits it will likely cost more money. But he says he won't know the bill, until they study it.

10/19/2011 Related Story: Task Force To Study Oklahoma DHS