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May 16, 2012

State’s DHS overhaul many years overdue

NORMAN — Over the years, there have been many proposals to reform the state’s Department of Human Services. In the 1980s, following an exposé of barbaric practices at the state’s juvenile centers, the agency tried to change its culture. It got help and supervision from the courts, which stepped in to make changes.

Now, the state legislature is proposing another major overhaul that comes after some high-profile child deaths and lawsuits. The plan includes eliminating the agency’s governing commission and replacing it with four separate advisory panels, each charged with overseeing a different agency division. The changes come after the state settled a multimillion dollar lawsuit over how it cared for abused and neglected children.

It will take a statewide vote to abolish the current Commission for Human Services. It was created by the state’s Constitution. Voters may not like the idea since it puts more power in the hands of the governor to appoint the director who was formerly appointed by the commission.

But it also takes the responsibility out of the hands of non-elected commissioners and makes the governor accountable for making the system work. Other bills would streamline the administration of the agency’s child-welfare division, require additional training and pay increases for child-welfare workers, and require DHS to publicly disclose more information about cases involving child deaths or serious injuries that resulted from neglect or abuse.

The Associated Press reports the agreement calls for the state to spend about $100 million more over the next five years to implement the so-called “Pinnacle Plan.” Lawmakers plan to increase agency funding by about $30 million in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1.

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