TULSA (AP) — After nearly a decade of public missteps, internal turmoil and lawsuits challenging how the Oklahoma Department of Human Services handled the care and security of the children in its custody, a ballot issue in November proposes to take a wrecking ball to how the 7,000-employee agency is structured.
State Question 765 would abolish the title of the agency, its board of commissioners and its ability to set policy, and shift oversight and power to the governor's office, which would be responsible for appointing the agency's director with the consent of the Oklahoma Senate. Even though the title of the agency is done away with, employees wouldn't be eliminated because their positions and mission are outlined in state statute, which won't change, said Trish Frazier, policy director at the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, which has not taken a position on 765.
Supporters of the measure say 765 would add accountability to an agency that has struggled in recent years. But opponents — some who concede the question is likely to pass on Nov. 6 — are concerned the legislation is overreaching and goes too far in attempting to right past wrongs made by an overburdened agency.
The proposed legislation comes after years of strife at the agency, which was created in 1936 and today operates under a $2.2 billion budget and in all 77 of Oklahoma's counties.
In October 2005, 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs died, four months after the toddler was returned to her mother's care even though some DHS workers knew about complaints of possible abuse. Briggs had suffered numerous broken bones, bruises and other injuries before her death.
Then, three years later, the New York-based child advocacy group Children's Rights sued the agency, accusing it of victimizing foster children by failing to find safe homes for them and inadequately monitoring their safety because employees were overworked and poorly managed. The class-action lawsuit ended earlier this year with Oklahoma agreeing to overhaul its foster care system, a transformation the nonprofit declared could serve as a model for agencies across the country.
Before the Children's Right's lawsuit was settled, 5-year-old Serenity Deal died in June 2011, less than a month after DHS workers recommended she be placed in the care of her father, who eventually pleaded guilty to beating her to death.
Gov. Mary Fallin said 765 would complement the Pinnacle Plan, the state's $153 million blueprint for overhauling its foster care system over the next five years. It was developed as a result of the class-action lawsuit settlement.
The Pinnacle Plan would place all children younger than 2 years old in a family-like setting rather than a group shelter and establish a training program for DHS staff. It also calls for increasing the number of foster families in the state, hiring more child welfare specialists, reducing specialists' case loads and more frequent communication with foster families.
"Gov. Fallin has stated that revamping DHS, especially its child welfare services, is a priority of hers," said Alex Weintz, the governor's spokesman. "State Question 765 offers the governor more flexibility to pursue the reforms and improvements needed to keep Oklahoma children safe and to deliver higher quality services."
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, one of the architects of the state question, said the legislation would deeply transform the agency.
"There's a culture at DHS that is really inflexible and unworkable when you consider what we're asking the agency to do," Nelson said. "We just cannot continue to run our single-largest state agency that way."
But other lawmakers warn that 765, however well-intentioned, may reach too far.
"I'm concerned about it because just in the last two years, we've had a big effort to move or realign boards to serve at the pleasure of the governor," said Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, who expressed concern that since the director of DHS would be tied to who was governor at the time under the new law, maintaining consistency could be difficult.
Wilson also worried whether DHS overhauls such as the Pinnacle Plan would be able to survive if the Legislature is forced to deal with future budget shortfalls.
"They're going to hire more caseworkers, drop the case loads and we're going to have supervisors out in every county; they're spending money initially to get the court off their backs," he said. "I bet you a dollar that's short-term until ... the first time we run out of money."
Sen. Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, called the state question a "knee-jerk reaction" to the agency's past troubles.
"The people in Oklahoma are dissatisfied because of the settlement as a result of litigation," he said. "Again, this is not going to change the problems we've had."