OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s embattled Department of Human Services has the opportunity to remake itself, its new director said Monday, outlining a broad vision for the future.
In a talk at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, Director Ed Lake said he wants to increase staff on the ground, improve communication with providers and other agencies and reorganize the child welfare system.
Lake accepted the DHS director post in November as the dust settled from a class action lawsuit against the department over several high-profile deaths of children under the state’s watch.
Though he acknowledged some members of the department made clear mistakes, Lake told The Associated Press, “I wouldn’t want to blame people inside the system for failures of the system.”
Following the lawsuit’s settlement and the voter-approved Pinnacle Plan, the department is set to be completely reworked. It has begun converting its leadership to governor-appointed panels, changing its child welfare system’s workings and hiring more social workers to make individual workloads manageable.
“We can’t PR ourselves to a better image,” he told a crowd of dozens of social workers, DHS partners and other Oklahoma residents. “We have to perform our way there, and that is a process that isn’t going to happen in six or seven months by any stretch of the imagination.
“We are trying to reinvent ourselves.”
Lake said he spent most of January talking with DHS employees, management teams and other stakeholders to develop more areas of potential improvement. He said he repeatedly heard about aging computer systems and facilities, a need for customer service training and a need for more money — not only for contracted partners, but for DHS employees.
“When many, many employees have not had raises for six or seven years straight, I can understand why that becomes a critical issue,” Lake said, though he noted state employee salaries were beyond his control. “With the recession and budget cuts and staffing cuts, we really are having to make do with fewer employees in many areas.”
That’s why hiring more people is part of the Pinnacle Plan and will be a top priority for whatever funding the department gets this year, Lake said.
Funds likely will be tight. Lake said that when he arrived at the department, it gave him a list of needs that would have cost more than $150 million to address. Instead, Gov. Mary Fallin allocated only an extra $50 million to the department in her executive budget, which serves as a detailed starting point for legislators to craft an official state budget.
“The resources provided are never going to match what you see the need to be,” Lake said. “In some of these other areas, if we don’t get the funding, we’re going to have to continue to figure out ways to meet the needs with the resources we have. And it just becomes increasingly difficult.”
Several attendees asked questions about specifics, but most seemed supportive of Lake’s ideas — none voiced opposition.
“Thank you, director, for what I’ve seen today,” said Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes, to applause from the crowd. “Sounds like you’re on the right track and doing the right things and we wish you the best success.”