Changes at DHS threaten progress

This legislative session the bulk of our work focused on child welfare reform: demanding change at the state Department of Human Services to better protect Oklahoma children in foster care and creating better opportunities for children of incarcerated parents. We demanded pay increases for foster care families, lower case loads for child welfare workers doing the hard word in the trenches for Oklahoma children, and assurance that everyone working within the child welfare system — including judges, police, social workers and foster families — receive important training on how trauma affects children.  

These reforms will make a difference in the lives of children, ensuring their success in school and in the workforce — creating a stronger economy for Oklahoma’s future.

But much of the work to implement these reforms must be embraced by DHS, which historically has been resistant to change.  

As child advocates, we have a duty to keep a watchful eye over this process, but recent events occurring since the Legislature adjourned in May have us concerned about the progress being made. Since the end of session, two of the strongest voices on the DHS Commission demanding change for children, Steven Dow and Anne Roberts, have resigned, and Gov. Fallin’s appointment to the commission, Brad Yarborough, resigned his chairmanship. These dedicated public servants had brought to the commission years of knowledge on children’s issues.

With their resignations, that knowledge dies. The news of their collective resignations shocked the child advocacy world and left us shaking our heads in disbelief. We fear their absence on the commission is a huge setback for the momentum created to change a system in desperate need of repair.

In addition to the resignations, is the discovery of legislative language hidden deep in a measure, House Bill 2300, passed without debate or input from the child advocacy community that drastically waters down outside oversight of DHS. At a time when public opinion of an agency charged with caring for the most vulnerable in our state is at an all-time low, greater accountability and outside oversight is the only way forward. But this language cripples that forward momentum.

We’ve reached out to lawmakers who share our concern and intend to work together to find solutions and remove roadblocks to change. We’ve made too much progress better protecting Oklahoma’s children and creating a brighter future for all to fall asleep at the wheel now. We’ll continue being the voice for Oklahoma’s children; they deserve no less than our collective best effort.  

Terrell is executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

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