Oklahoma House Releases DHS Audit

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association staff attended the press conference February 25, unveiling the performance audit by the company Hornby Zeller Associates, INC, of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Welfare Division.

“We commend the Speaker and the House working group for taking on this critical issue,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “In addition, the audit recommendations mirror those in OPEA’s amicus brief filed recently in U.S. District Court.”

According to Rep. Ron Peters, legislation that will be filed in response to the audit will address 90 percent of the remedies requested by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The recommendations will be contained in HB 1734, which will go before a House committee early next week.

“One of the most important points in the press conference was made by Rep. Ron Peters when he said we need to not point fingers at who is at fault, but fix the problems for kids,” concluded Zearley.

The audit is critical of standing orders in the state’s two metropolitan areas, which allow law enforcement to remove children from their homes and place them in shelters before DHS is involved. Legislators indicated that these standing orders contribute significantly to Oklahoma having two times the national average of children in custody. According to audit recommendations, more emphasis should be put on in-home services, allowing children to safely remain in their homes or be moved temporarily to relatives.

OPEA is concerned with the sixth recommendation which states “DHS should phase out the two large publicly funded shelters, Laura Dester and Pauline E. Mayer, and replace them with emergency foster homes when alternative placements such as neighbors and relatives cannot be found.”

“The shelters are sometimes overcrowded, but they are a safe place for children,” said Zearley. “Without the shelters, which are strategically placed geographically, child welfare workers would spend even more time struggling to place children and driving across the state for emergency placement.”

OPEA voiced continued concerns regarding the drastically under-funded agency.

“The audit shows a severe lack of funding for the agency, in particular, its front line employees,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “The Association’s effort to bring these issues to the attention of legislative leaders has been validated by today’s report.

“Front line workers in DHS are withering under an incredible workload, feelings of hopelessness and general frustration with the lack respect given to their profession,” Zearley said. “This report clearly gives the legislature a mandate to stop the horrendous turnover among DHS employees by giving adequate pay. The report shows employees characterize the salaries as ‘pitiful’ and ‘ludicrous’ compared to the level of responsibility they have.

“Everyone acknowledges these are tough economic times,” said Zearley. “But OPEA believes the legislature should begin immediately implementing the relief that is recommended for our state’s valuable DHS employees.”

The complete audit can be found on the House home page at http://www.okhouse.gov/Documents/OklahomaDHSPerformanceAudit

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