OKLAHOMA CITY – House Speaker Kris Steele and the House DHS Working Group today announced plans to finalize legislation designed to significantly improve components of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
The legislation comes as the agency prepares to implement the Pinnacle Plan, the child welfare services improvement plan the agency is developing with a panel of national experts.
“DHS is on the verge of the sweeping culture change it has so desperately needed for years,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “The House DHS Working Group was just as involved in making the Pinnacle Plan the strong plan it is today as it was in developing these vital reforms. If these measures pass and the Pinnacle Plan is implemented, the most vulnerable Oklahomans will be far better served and the state as a whole will benefit tremendously.”
Among the group’s policy recommendations this session are to:
- Vertically integrate the agency’s child welfare division;
- Abolish the Commission for Human Services;
- Allow for gubernatorial appointment of the DHS director;
- Disclose more information on child welfare cases;
- Establish a worker certification program.
Specific legislative language outlining those proposals and others will be introduced this week into DHS reform measures that are awaiting action in conference committees.
The policy proposals were developed collectively by the bipartisan House DHS Working Group comprised of Reps. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, and Wade Rousselot, D-Okay.
“This legislation is about culture change from the top to the bottom,” said Nelson, the leader of the working group.
Since October, the House DHS Working Group has engaged in an aggressive, four-pronged strategy to improve DHS through significant study of and reforms to the agency’s governance, structure, personnel policy and resource allocation. Steele formed the group in response to a shared desire between House members, agency officials and other stakeholders to improve delivery of services by DHS, particularly for children in state custody.
The working group operated in an unconventional manner by holding nearly all of its meetings outside the Capitol, often times on the front lines with DHS workers across the state. So far, the group has met with more than 400 workers in 22 counties. The group will continue working in the future.
“Many of our recommendations are based on what we’ve learned from the DHS workers who do these critical jobs day in and day out. We wanted to hear from them rather than them hearing from us,” Peterson said. “A lot of our group’s ideas went into the Pinnacle Plan. Some of these bills complement parts of the Pinnacle Plan and others go beyond it with reforms that will reshape DHS for the better.”
HB 3134 would vertically integrate the agency’s child welfare division. Currently, the division’s policy and operations personnel operate separately, leading to gaps in services, a lack of accountability and inconsistent application of state law and agency policy.
“All our research found this would be a far more effective structural model. It’s leaner, more accountable and more responsive,” Ownbey said. “This is also a recommendation in the Pinnacle Plan that the agency has started working toward in recent months. We felt it was important enough to require that it also be law. The division and the children it serves will benefit greatly from this new structure.”
HJR 1092 would create a state question allowing voters to decide whether to abolish the Commission for Human Services, the constitutionally-mandated, nine-member group of unelected volunteers that has overseen the agency since 1936.
“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,” Nelson said. “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.”
If the state question passes, HB 3137 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 of Oklahoma 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.”
The new hiring model would not apply to the agency’s current search for a new director. That search will continue and be completed under the existing process.
HB 3137 would also establish advisory panels that would monitor each of the agency’s divisions to help agency leadership make informed decisions.
Under HB 3135, the agency would be required to publicly disclose pertinent information about cases of child death or near death by abuse or neglect. It would also have to notify the governor and legislative leadership of the initial investigatory findings of such cases. The working group is working with agency officials, federal officials and national child welfare advocates to ensure that the bill does not violate federal standards.
“Our intent is to require the release of all information allowed under the law. We fundamentally believe transparency helps children,” Nelson said. “A culture of secrecy lends itself to endless problems and does nothing to help children. Experience has shown that transparency prevents unacceptable outcomes from being allowed to stand as acceptable.”
Under HB 3136, a worker certification program would be established requiring competency-based standards to be met for the hiring and promotion of front-line child welfare employees. No such certification program currently exists, leading to inconsistent personnel decisions. The bill also creates a revolving fund to place monies earmarked for future pay raises for employees.
“The workers are the heart and soul of DHS. Certification is something they’ve said they want and need – and we agree,” Rousselot said. “The Pinnacle Plan righteously recommends pay raises for child welfare workers and this program will ensure those raises go to certified workers who have truly earned it. Based on our interactions with DHS workers, I suspect the vast majority have the talent required to achieve these certifications and will do so in short order.”