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DHS Head Steps Down After 14 Years

Filed by Michael Cross in Feature, Local News.
January 25, 2012

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A state agency with more than 7,200 employees and a $2.2 billion budget is losing its director after several years of controversy including the deaths of three children.

Department of Human Services Director Howard Hendricks is calling it quits on February 29th, the same day the agency is settling a lawsuit with a New York-based child advocacy group.

A stunned crowd at Tuesday’s Commission on Human Services listens to the man who has been the head of DHS since 1998 saying his goodbyes.

During his tenure the Department has been rocked by controversy including the very public deaths of three children under the agency’s care: Kelsey Smith Briggs, Ahonesty Hicks and Serenity Deal.

The deaths led the Human Services Commission to create a new committee to deal with children in the care of DHS.

The agency also recently reached a settlement in a lawsuit over the abuse of children in DHS foster care.

Hendrick says there’s always going to be controversy, and it’s been harder for DHS with the recent recession.

“As the economy gets tougher and the number of people that we serve increases and our costs go up and the dollars come down the convergence of those three economic realities make it very difficult to deliver the services.”

While there’s been some bad, there’s also been some good.

The Department’s been facing significant cuts in the past few years, but still Hendrick’s managed to protect many of the front-line workers by shifting cuts to other areas of DHS.

The agency has been recognized nationally for its work with child support, food assistance programs and adoptions.

Human Services Commission Chairman Brad Yarbrough calls Hendrick a dedicated public servant who picked the right time to go.

“This is a director that could have retired last year. He’s accomplished a great deal. Not only as a friend but as a professional, I have great admiration for him. This was also timely in his own life.”

For years, House Speaker Kris Steele has raised concerns about the direction of DHS.

While Steele commends Hendrick and wishes him the best, he also calls this a new day for the agency.

“At this point our focus is going to be to work diligently to develop a plan of improvement for the department of human services so that those individuals who are in need of the services that the agency provides are actually receiving those services.”

Speaker Steele is hoping to see a national search to find a new person to take the reins of the department.

Chairman Yarbrough supports the idea of a national search and would like to see an interim director in place by March First.

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