Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nelson Coauthors DHS Reform Bill

OKLAHOMA CITY (March 10, 2009) – Legislation aimed at reducing the number of children removed from their home with the help of social workers and in-home services for parents passed the House today.

House Bill 1734 seeks to implement several recommendations of an audit of the Department of Human Services, including a requirement that law enforcement consult with DHS before removing a child; the creation of a passport program to allow information about a child’s physical and behavioral health and educational needs to be available electronically; implementation of a phase-out of public shelters; establishment of a centralized statewide hotline for all reports of abuse and neglect of children; and a reorganization of the department offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties.

"The title is off this bill and we will continue to work with all interested parties to make sure this legislation keeps children in our state safe," said Rep. Ron Peters, author of the bill and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services. "We will make it safer for children to stay in their homes with improved risk and safety assessments and increased home services for parents who genuinely want to take care of their children. These changes will allow DHS workers to focus more of their time on the true cases of abuse."

The audit came after five months of extensive study by the independent auditing firm Hornby Zeller Associates.

House Speaker Chris Benge formed a bipartisan working group last year to study the issue made up of Reps. Peters, Kris Steele and Pam Peterson, Jeannie McDaniel, Wade Rousselot and Richard Morrissette. The group called for the performance audit as a way to determine what changes are needed to the system.

The legislation also calls for improved and expanded training for DHS workers to better assess the risk to and safety of a child. The change, coupled with the recommendation for DHS workers to be directly involved in child removals, would help to prevent children from being removed from the home needlessly, which puts undue burdens on the child and the system itself, said Peters, R-Tulsa.

In Oklahoma, the audit shows that 20 percent of children removed from their home are returned within one week of removal. In the Tulsa area, 40 percent of children removed are returned home in that same timeframe.

"The safety of our children is the utmost goal here, and I am hopeful we will be able to bring real change to the system with this legislation," said Benge, R-Tulsa.

The legislation passed the House today with a vote of 87-8 and will move to the Senate for consideration.
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