Friday, November 2, 2012

SQ 765 necessary to rebuild Oklahoma’s broken Department of Human Services

Supporters say the welfare of Oklahoma’s children need a voice

OKLAHOMA – Passage of State Question 765 is a major component of Oklahoma’s effort to rebuild and improve the state’s broken Department of Human Services (DHS). The welfare of Oklahoma’s children, families, aging and disabled need a voice, supporters and authors of the ballot measure said Friday at a news conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

“Currently, the Department of Human Services is largely governed by a volunteer board which, however well-intentioned, does not answer to voters,” said Governor Mary Fallin. “The passage of SQ 765 will put authority for appointing an agency director in the hands of the governor, who was chosen to represent the people of Oklahoma and whose job it is to be responsive to their concerns. I am supportive of SQ 765 because it offers the governor more flexibility to pursue the reforms and improvements needed to keep Oklahoma children safe and to deliver higher quality services.”
Under the watch of the DHS nine-member board, the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services, numerous child deaths, lawsuits and the resignation earlier this year of the DHS chairman have occurred.

Five-year-old Serenity Deal died while in the custody of the state in 2011, after repeated concerns were expressed by her foster parents about the danger she was in. DHS employees testified as to the safety of her father’s home, despite proof of repeated physical injuries.

Linda Terrell
“The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy fought hard last session to bring bold reforms to the broken child welfare system through the Serenity Project,” said Linda Terrell, OICA executive director. “The next crucial step is for voters to say yes to SQ 765 to abolish an antiquated oversight commission to bring greater accountability and ensure the safety of our most vulnerable Oklahomans.”

“The death of any child is tragic, but when a child dies because a government bureaucracy failed them is simply unacceptable,” said Annette Deal, grandmother of Serenity Deal. “Voting yes on State Question 765 means we are doing everything in our power to ensure no family has to endure the pain of losing a child the way our family lost Serenity.”

Under the watch of the DHS commission, DHS recently paid $9,500 to settle a lawsuit filed after a temporary DHS worker picked up the wrong girl from a Harrah elementary school in 2006. Additionally, the agency is involved in a lawsuit with a New York-based child advocacy group, Children’s Rights, that alleges Oklahoma’s system of caring for abused and neglected children is so bad that children are being injured and otherwise harmed while in shelters and foster homes. Earlier this year, the state of Oklahoma paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a mother who hid her young girl after DHS workers allegedly rejected concerns the girl had been molested.

“The agency’s governance structure is broken. It’s a 1930s governance model that fails to meet the needs of a complex 21st century agency,” said Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City and leader of the House DHS Working Group. “Nearly all the agency’s major problems can be traced back to an unaccountable commission and the historical tendency to insulate the director from any real accountability. If DHS is really going to improve, it must start at the top.”

In 2009, 3-year-old Ryan Weeks was beaten to death after being placed back in his mother’s custody from foster care despite pleading with the agency not to return the boy to the home. The mother’s live-in boyfriend eventually pleaded no contest to first-degree murder.

“Weeks spent his entire life in a home plagued by drug abuse and domestic violence,” said Steven Dow, executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County and former DHS commissioner. “Children like him need the support and encouragement of a child welfare system that works and acts as a savior.”

DHS Commission meeting earlier this year
Three former or current Oklahoma Commissioners of Human Services, including Dow, are in favor of SQ 765 and getting rid of the commission altogether. The additional members include, Anne Roberts and former chairman Brad Yarbrough, who is a current commissioner.

Voter approval of the measure would end Oklahoma’s distinction as the only state where the director reports to an unelected commission rather than a governor whose elected position makes them directly accountable to the people ofOklahoma.

If the state question passes, HB 3137, passed in the legislature earlier this year, would require the DHS director to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Currently, the director is hired by the Commission for Human Services.

“It puts the agency’s leadership closer to the people because the governor is accountable to all the people of Oklahoma,” Nelson said. “The pressure will be on the agency director to do what is right or they’ll have to answer to all the people ofOklahoma rather than an unelected, unaccountable commission. This agency is too important to leave it in the hands of people who don’t directly answer to the public.”

HB 3137 would also establish advisory panels that would monitor each of the agency’s divisions to help agency leadership make informed decisions. The legislation was developed and supported collectively by a bipartisan group of legislatures comprised of House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee; Reps. Wade Rousselot, D-Okay; Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City; Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore; Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa; and Sens. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City and Rick Brinkley, R-Owasso.

“The state question would not only abolish the commission but also a bad statute that goes back to 1936, Dow said. “Nothing has happened or can happen to improve the system because of the laws that are currently in effect. It’s time to change our system and SQ 765 is the first step.”

“A vote for SQ765 is a vote to fix DHS,” said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. “It is a vote to bring greater oversight and accountability that is desperately needed.”

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