The audit comes after five months of extensive study by the independent auditing firm Hornby Zeller Associates, which has helped lead changes in states like Arkansas and Georgia following similar audits. The audit focused on the children and families services division, field operations division and family support services division of the agency.
If the recommendations are implemented they could protect more Oklahoma children from harm.
"We have to work to find the right balance between keeping children in their homes when at all possible and knowing when a child needs to be taken out of a dangerous situation," said Rep. Ron Peters, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services. "We will be working to intensify our safety and risk assessment training of DHS workers so they can know the difference between a family who could use improved parenting skills versus one knowingly harming their child."
House Speaker Chris Benge requested the audit last legislative session and formed a bipartisan working group made up of Republican Reps. Ron Peters, Kris Steele and Pam Peterson and Democratic Reps. Jeannie McDaniel, Wade Rousselot and Richard Morrissette to study the issue.
"It is my hope that everyone involved in this process will put the well-being of Oklahoma children first. I would like to thank department officials, especially agency director Howard Hendrick, for their willingness to work with the Legislature," said Benge, R-Tulsa. "There will always be a certain level of tragedy when dealing with neglected and abused children, but we must do all we can as a state to minimize those risks."
The audit recommends streamlining several functions of the agency to eliminate duplication and help families know where they need to go for services.
A centralized hotline needs to be established for all reports of abuse and neglect of children. The department's licensing processes also need to be more efficient. A single process needs to be developed for all in-home services, whether that is day care, foster care or adoptive screenings.
DHS should also develop a Passport Program similar to that in Texas, which allows information about a child's physical and behavioral health and educational needs to be available electronically.
The need for additional training for DHS workers was also cited several times in the audit, and DHS Director Hendrick has said the department is already in the process of implementing more stringent and thorough instruction for both new and current employees.
"Having the proper training in place for our child welfare workers has to be a priority, and we must constantly work to make sure DHS employees have the most up-to-date training and skills when it comes to dealing with vulnerable children," said Rep. Peters, R-Tulsa. "We must do anything we can to ensure our workers are using the industry best practices when it comes to standard of care for children."
Another audit recommendation would aim to reduce the number of children in the state system by increasing the number of in-home services available to families.
"The majority of children are removed from their home because of neglect, not willful abuse," said Peters. "This change would help teach parents how to properly care for their children while keeping them at home and safe under the more stringent court supervision of in-home services."
Though additional in-home services may come with a price-tag, Peters said the state would save money in the long-run with an increased focus on in-home services that would help keep children out of costly state care.
"Many parents in Oklahoma want to be able to take care of their children, but aren't adequately equipped to do so," he said.
One of the critical recommendations, if enacted, will ensure that a DHS caseworker is directly involved in the removal of a child from their home. Currently, law enforcement can remove a child from the home and place the child in DHS custody without the involvement of a child welfare worker.
The change would help to prevent children from being removed from the home needlessly, which puts undue burdens on the child and the system itself.
In Oklahoma, the audit shows that 20 percent of children removed from their home are returned within one week of removal. In the Tulsa area, 40 percent of children removed are returned home in that same timeframe.
The audit proposes some structural reorganization of the Oklahoma and Tulsa county offices. Additionally, the audit says the department's SWIFT adoption workers need to be integrated into the agency's local offices.
Benge said that an oversight component, to ensure the changes made are effective, will be included in the reform legislation.
"All of these recommendations will not be able to be implemented overnight, but we will be aggressive in pursuing as many reforms as possible," said Benge. "Protecting Oklahoma's children is one of the utmost responsibilities of government and we will work this year and in subsequent years to make sure the states child welfare system is the best it can be"
Since 1988, Hornby Zeller Associates, Inc. has provided evaluation and consulting services to public and private organizations in over 30 states and the District of Columbia. HZA has worked in numerous states conducting research, evaluation, workload, rate-setting and technical assistance projects, which when combined, involves every aspect of child welfare beginning with a child's entry into the child welfare system, to the investigation of a report, to receipt of services including in-home and foster care, and the achievement of permanency through adoption.
One of the firm's founders, Dr. Dennis Zeller, grew up in Oklahoma and is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma.
Legislation seeking to implement many of the audit recommendations will be heard in the House Human Services Committee Monday, March 2.