By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — State Question 765, if approved by voters, will allow for radical reform of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Nothing makes a legislator cringe more than headlines of a child who has died or been mistreated while on the state’s watch. OKDHS has been under fire since the death of 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs on Oct. 11, 2005. In the months before her death, DHS received multiple reports of suspected abuse with injuries, including a broken collar bone and two broken legs. She died shortly after being returned to her mother at the urging of those who were charged with her protection.
A class action lawsuit styled as D.G. vs. Yarbrough was filed in February 2008 on behalf of nine children by attorneys hired by nonprofit Children’s Rights Inc. That lawsuit brought DHS deficiencies into the headlines over the course of the next four years. Investigations into DHS Child Protective Services resulting from that lawsuit sent shockwaves through the state.
Next, the death of 5-year-old Serenity Deal on Sept. 15, 2011, exposed apparent inadequacies in the child protective system. Deal was removed from foster care and placed in the custody of her father, who later pleaded guilty to murdering her.
Oklahoma legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin rose to the challenge, bringing to the vote of the people a ballot question that, if approved, will allow the state to radically restructure the Department of Human Services.
Linda Terrell, former director of Norman-based Center for Children and Families Inc. and current executive director for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said this is a change that’s time has come.
“We have a voice to vote and we have a voice that we can use with our elected officials. Our children depend on us to do that,” Terrell said. “Our voices collectively have got to get loud.”
Terrell supports passage of SQ 765.
“I’m pleased that our elected officials are really taking a look at what’s going to make things better for our children,” Terrell said.
* A “yes” vote on SQ 765 will remove the Department of Public Welfare (now called the Department of Human Services), its commission and director from the state’s constitution. It will allow the legislature to create and direct the administration of a new department to provide for public welfare.
The bill’s author, Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the bill’s purpose is “to create a more transparent environment at DHS that is accountable to the legislature and the governor.”
Treat said the welfare department was created in 1936 in response to a federal mandate and change is long overdue.
“We passed legislation that only becomes effective if this (SQ 765) passes,” Treat said. “That bill recreates DHS in the Oklahoma statutes. It does not have a commission, but, rather, it has four separate advisory boards: one to oversee developmental disability issues, one to oversee child welfare issues, one to oversee aging issues and one is a human resources oversight.”
These umbrella advisory boards will replace the current commission if the state question is approved by voters.
The new system allows for more accountability, Treat said.
“It makes the director appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate,” he said. “We need to have a face on this issue that people can hold accountable. The agency has had unacceptable levels of failure in the past. There are wonderful people who work there, but the system has failed the people who work there and the state of Oklahoma.”
Treat said he worked closely with Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, the minority leader, and the appointments on the advisory boards reflect bipartisan input.
“One of the things we felt was extremely important is the bipartisan effort,” Treat said.
If this question is approved, the new law will allow for five appointments: one by the governor, one by the senate pro tem, one by the Senate minority leader and one each by the House speaker and the House minority leader.
“That’s really unheard of in these agencies,” Treat said. “We wanted this to be an issue that we all tackled together.”
“This is a situation in which we had a commission which was failing,” Burrage said. “We had good people serving on the commission, but they were uninformed.”
Burrage said respected commission member Steven Dow told Burrage he had to vote on issues where he (Dow) didn’t feel fully informed.
“I respect no one in the state of Oklahoma more than Steven Dow,” Burrage said. “DHS was sued because of how they handled their child welfare system. We all agreed on these DHS reforms.”
Because the governor would appoint the director under the new system, that makes Fallin accountable.
“I commend the governor for taking this position,” Burrage said. “I also want to commend the governor for appointing Preston Doerflinger as the interim commissioner. He is a Rogers County product and a personal friend.”
Because the current system was included in the state’s constitution, voters must approve its removal to allow the Oklahoma legislature to make the needed and dramatic reforms.
“I’m excited about the fact that there’s an opportunity for voters to have a say about what the state needs to do to make sure our children are taken care of,” Terrell said. “There’s no way a small commission can handle all of the oversight that needs to happen.”
Terrell said the proposed reoganization is the kind of bold reform she has said was needed.
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