DHS begins major overhaul of agency

TULSA - Big changes are on the way for the agency charged with one of the state's most important jobs -- protecting our children.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has been criticized for years. Now a lawsuit has been settled, and the agency has just begun a major overhaul within its child welfare division.

2News breaks down what's next in the fight for Oklahoma children.

Over the past decade, the OKDHS reports 129 children have died while in state care.

A lawsuit filed in 2008 against DHS became the catalyst for reform. In it a New York-based group called Children's Rights alleged the agency mistreated foster children in its care.

"This settlement is a real breakthrough. It will fundamentally change the way the state of Oklahoma performs its foster care services," said Fred Dorwart, Children's Rights local attorney,when the settlement was reached last December.

The settlement and several high profile cases of child abuse led state lawmakers to call for change. Four months after DHS released its 'Pinnacle Plan' for reform, the agency is a work in progress.

"Changes of this magnitude don't happen overnight. They start certainly now. But it's going to take some time for us to see results," said Sheree Powell, DHS spokesperson.

Powell says soon Oklahomans will see more transparency. Under a new state law, the agency must now provide the governor, House and Senate with a preliminary investigative report after a child death or  near death.

"That means it's giving them some information first, to say, 'Here's what we see. Here's what we're finding in this case.' Which is not something that we've done before," she said.

But Powell says it will be a balancing act. The federal government has tight guidelines on what can and cannot be released.

"Right now, when a child dies, and if their parent or guardian, the person responsible for them, is charged with their death, that's the only circumstance that DHS can release information about its involvement with the child or family," said Powell.

The child welfare division is being reorganized. The state has been re-districted into 26 areas with each assigned to a child welfare director.

"That's what this new organization would create, is a direct line of authority, from the top all the way down to the frontlines," said Powell.

All of these changes will need more funding. DHS received $50 million additional dollars in this year's budget. Half will go toward the Pinnacle Plan.

Powell says more funding will enable the agency to hire more workers and pay foster parents better. She says state lawmakers made this a priority.

"They worked with us. And they really dug deep to see where we needed help, where we needed reinforcements," she said.

Lawmakers like Representative Pam Peterson hit the road last October looking for answers.

"It's going to take many years to turn this whole system around," said Peterson.

They formed a 'DHS working group' -- talking to more than 400 caseworkers, district attorneys, judges and child advocates across Oklahoma.

"I do think that we need to take care of those that can't take care of themselves. The children that are in foster care, we need to do a better job," Peterson said.

Peterson says part of the plan calls for recruiting as many foster families as possible..

"We have 6,000 churches I think in the state of Oklahoma, and over 8,000 children that need foster homes. And I think that would be a tremendous opportunity for a lot of people that have a lot of love in their hearts," she said.

Peterson is confident the changes will improve DHS.

"There's so many stake holders right now, that are really looking at this and saying 'now is the time for significant change.' And I think there's the will to do it," she said.

This November, voters will decide whether to get rid of the commission that oversees DHS. If passed, the governor will appoint the DHS director, with Senate confirmation. In the meantime, DHS just recently announced a new chairman.

Gov. Mary Fallin appointed Wes Lane to the position last week. He replaces Brad Yarbrough, who resigned as chairman in June.

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