OPEA Joins in Effort to Improve Child Welfare

OPEA joined with House Speaker Kris Steele, DHS Commissioner Brad Yarbrough, DHS Director Howard Hendrick, and a bipartisan group of five representatives on October 19 to unveil the first steps of a strategy to reform the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

Speaker Steele announced a four-pronged strategy designed to improve OKDHS through significant study of and potential reforms to governance structure, agency structure, personnel policy and resource allocation. The plan is in response to a shared desire between House members, agency officials, OPEA and other stakeholders to improve delivery of services by DHS, particularly for children in state custody.

“This is not about pointing fingers or casting blame,” said Steele in his remarks opening the press conference. “We’ve done that and it is now time to move forward. It is time to work together with this agency to identify positive solutions.”

“DHS has one of the most important missions of state government,” continued Steele. “For many DHS workers, their profession is a calling. They want to help. I would like to express my personal appreciation for our front line workers. They have been doing an amazing job for a number of years and the last thing we want to do as an institution is cast a negative light on the good work that the agency does and the good work that the front line workers do. They are doing their very best in almost every situation and we appreciate them and they are to be commended. We must empower our front line workers to be successful and make certain that we equip them with the tools necessary to carry out their functions.”

Steele has asked a bipartisan group of five representatives to engage in a strategic review of DHS to develop policy to consider next legislative session.
Leading the group will be Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who has spent this summer and past years reviewing DHS to look for potential reforms. Other members of the group are Reps. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City, and Wade Rousselot, D-Okay. All members of the group have certain areas of expertise in human services.

“There is a lot of detail involved in this effort,” said Rep. Nelson. “Our goal is to dig into the details and to make sure as a legislature to understand what the workers face and what the administration faces.”

“I have spent hours meeting with front line workers,” continued Nelson. “I have met with OCCY and district attorneys. When you see a child death case, it’s not just a child welfare worker, it’s district attorneys and judges also. Ask any law enforcement worker and they will tell you that nothing is more complicated than a domestic case.”

“Hiring, retention, and training of employees is absolutely critical,” said Nelson. “The Speaker was right when he said that the goal here is to do what is best for the vulnerable families in our state and the way you are going to do that is understand what the employees face on a daily basis.”

OPEA members and staff have already been meeting with Rep. Nelson to discuss issues and challenges facing child welfare workers. The group’s meetings with workers are private to allow for candid conversation and disclosure of sensitive information. The group will also engage in an in-depth study of the agency’s structure and resource allocation to determine if better results could be achieved through reorganization and reprioritizing resources. A public report on the group’s findings will be presented during a public meeting sometime next year.

“OPEA appreciates the Speaker of the House Steele and Representative Nelson for including us in this important effort,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “OPEA has been concerned with the recent tragic deaths of children in Oklahoma and agree one child death is one too many. We must make every effort to protect vulnerable children from abuse and neglect.”

“For several months, OPEA members who work daily with Oklahoma’s at risk children have spent hours with Representative Nelson, providing their perspective on improving the child welfare system,” continued Zearley. “I would like to personally thank them for their willingness and commitment to help improve the system.”

“OPEA appreciates Speaker Steele and Representative Nelson leaving the meeting rooms at the Capitol and spending time with the workers who are on the ground protecting Oklahoma’s children,” concluded Zearley in his comments. “The front line employees’ unique perspective and their experience will be valuable in this critical process.”

DHS Director Howard Hendrick also spoke at the press conference.

“What I am very encouraged by with this event today is the opportunity to collaborate, and look at new or creative ways that we haven’t used before, take the challenges and our strengths together to find some new or better ways of doing things. We are living in an environment that is very different from 1936, when DHS was founded.”

“I am really encouraged about the good words that have been said about our staff,” Hendrick continued. “We really have remarkable staff and I want to say again how grateful I am for the work that our staff do every day. It is very difficult work. They have done it heroically and I am very honored to be a part of that.”

“This has been a unique experience for us, because we have actually had Rep. Nelson engaging with the front line employees who do the work every day,” said Zearley in response to a question from the press. “That is huge. I can’t tell you what the employees need. We represent them, but you have to walk in their shoes to understand their challenges. This is a unique opportunity for the employees to talk about the system, what they need, what they are not getting, and how resources can be used more efficiently.”

DHS commissioners also expressed support for the group’s plans.

“We are fully committed to building a better DHS for the 21st century and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with Speaker Steele and all legislators in this process,” said incoming Oklahoma Commission for Human Services Chairman Brad Yarbrough. “It won’t be easy, but the best work never is. We stand ready for the challenge.”

OPEA is continuing to provide information to Rep. Nelson. If you are an OPEA member and would like to attend a meeting or contribute your comments to this effort, call Haley Blood at the OPEA office at 405-524-6764 or 800-880-6732. You can also reach Haley on her cell phone at 405-818-3009 or via e-mail at haleyb@opea.org.

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