The Future of DHS
The Department of Human Services…
Just saying the name can usually bring out negative opinions from Oklahomans especially in light of the high profile deaths of children in its care over the past few years.
Making changes to the state’s largest agency isn’t easy.
But, a new direction could change the way people view the department.
It’s not hard to find people who’ve had some negative experience with the Department of Human Services.
I caught up with Anna Greene-Hicks in the Student Union at OSU.
The university web developer tried unsuccessfully to get DHS to investigate an incident of abuse to a child in her own family to no avail.
And, even witnessed a friend’s son abused by her ex-husband new wife.
“They called me and asked me what I knew and I’d seen her slap him in Wal-Mart and they still didn’t investigate, so you know, they just closed it without talking and visiting or anything.”
Anna says in her experience DHS seems to just focus on the bigger cases, and many of the little ones slip through the cracks.
But, it’s the bigger cases which make the headlines, like Kelsey Smith-Briggs who died just a couple months short of her third birthday in 2005.
Despite being closely observed by the agency, Kelsey was killed and her mother and step-father were convicted and sentenced in her death.
Former TV reporter, Britton Follett co-wrote a book called “Who Killed Kelsey?” and says the agency didn’t hold frontline employees accountable.
“In Kelsey’s case, all of the case workers were not terminated, one was even promoted for not doing their job, and so accountability in my opinion is the one thing that DHS has to do to make a change in the system.”
But, the fault might not lie entirely with the social workers.
Jim McGoodwin is a former attorney with the State Auditor’s Office.
“You have people who’ve been there for quite a while, but you also have a lot of people who are brand new to the job. I’ve known some of those people and I can tell you it is an emotionally tough job.”
Jim McGoodwin was part of the auditing process for the DHS for many years and says case workers have the lowest salaries of any Oklahoman with a college degree, but they’re often required to make life and death decisions.
“Given the time they have, the caseload they have, they have to make the best judgment possible. And, they’re either going to take them from their parent or they’re going to leave them with the parent and either way there’s always the possibility of having made the wrong decision.”
The Department is currently undergoing massive changes.
Director Howard Hendrick departed after leading the agency for 14 years
While searching for a new leader, State Finance Director Preston Doerflinger is serving as interim director.
He says he’s found employees aren’t the problem. Instead the agency is plagued by dysfunction because it hasn’t addressed the real issues.
“There is a tendency, i think, to some degree because of the nature of the business to move from crisis to crisis and not always take the time to camp out on a given issue and try to determine the root problem.”
While DHS tries to figure out the root issues and address them, lawmakers are finalizing details on reform legislation known as the Pinnacle Plan.
The five-year proposal would increase the training for workers and increase transparency and accountability for the agency and its employees.
House Speaker Kris Steele says it should make a major change in the way cases are handled.
“There’s a disconnect between the program employees that render the service and the field operations so a supervisor may not have direct oversight over a case load and so we’re going to move that to a vertical sort of restructuring of the organization.”
The Pinnacle Plan is expected to cost more than $100 million and will help pay for more child welfare workers and pay raises for current workers.
But time will tell if people like Anna Greene-Hicks see changes in the process.
“I think it’s got to be more than just throwing more money at it. You can pay people thousands of dollars more a year they might not be doing their job. But, I don’t have the answer. I just know it’s broken.”
Some of the details of the Pinnacle Plan are expected to be released this week.