Read some of the emails between DHS commissioners and director Howard Hendrick. http://www.tulsaworld.com/webextra/content/items/DHSemails.pdf
A child advocacy group legally obligated to investigate child deaths was allegedly denied access to investigative files of a high-profile case by attorneys with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, according to emails obtained by the Tulsa World through the state’s Open Records Act.
Email correspondence in DHS suggests tension among commissioners and extensive involvement by the agency’s legal department in matters ranging from raising child-care fees to information released on a child’s death.
The Tulsa World requested on Sept. 20 all email correspondence between DHS Director Howard Hendrick and the commissioners on the oversight board starting in January 2011. Documents dating to Sept. 10 were received on Jan. 11.
Most of the correspondence shows commissioner Steven Dow pressing for information on specific child-death cases, asking about budget items, inquiring about a mandated organizational review and questioning a move that would have increased child-care fees on low-income families.
Dow is the executive director of the Community Action Project of Tulsa County and holds a law degree from Yale University.
While the emails show friction between commissioners and DHS officials, the tenor has shifted significantly since October with the appointment of two new board members and changes in commission governance, Dow said.
Spirit of openness
“There is a 180-degree difference,” Dow said. “The new leadership of chairman Brad Yarbrough has approached everything with a spirit of openness and a level of energy with respect to the rule of law and how each commissioner should be able to participate and do their job the way we want to do it.”
DHS withheld 189 emails, citing attorney-client privilege. An additional 18 emails were withheld, cited as confidential by statutes regarding child welfare.
Spokeswoman Sheree Powell said staff attorneys reviewed all the emails. The attorney-client privilege refers to when they were copied on correspondence about pending lawsuits or investigations.
It appears from the emails that the DHS legal department has a heavy say in all programs, requests for information and daily decisions. The agency has 14 staff attorneys, with salaries ranging from $71,430 to $109,727.
On Aug. 15, the director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth wrote Dow about a meeting she had with DHS director of field operations Larry Johnson on July 21, going under the impression her staff would be able to review an internal investigation into the death of Serenity Deal.
Serenity was a 5-year-old Oklahoma City girl who died June 4 after being beaten by her father, who was given custody by DHS workers.
“Unfortunately, we were told by Larry that (DHS) legal would not allow us to read it at that time as he held up some report from a distance,” stated Lisa Smith. “I told Larry to feel free to notify (DHS) legal staff that if they were uncomfortable with allowing OCCY access, OCCY would go get a court order for its release.”
OCCY has legal authority under Oklahoma Statute Title 10 to obtain information from DHS files for reports on child deaths. It does not specify the information has to be a final report. They do not have access to certain personnel files.
Smith wrote that at a July 22 meeting with DHS officials on another matter, agency attorney Bonnie Clift said the report needed to be “cleaned up” before OCCY could have it. Smith was denied the report by DHS officials on Aug. 8 and received it in the form of a press release on Aug. 10.
Clift denied making those comments to Smith, stating in an Aug. 12 email to DHS head general counsel Charles Waters that the only documents available were “preliminary drafts.”
“As to any draft of personnel action documents, those are not available until they are final actions,” Clift wrote. “I know of many discussions that I have been in about the Deal case, but none with Lisa Smith and none with commissioner Dow.”
Powell said the incident was a misunderstanding, and Clift was referring to cleaning up misspellings and grammar errors. She said the report was about possible policy violations by personnel, not an investigatory report.
“The emails make it sound like something sinister was happening, but it was really something that was misconstrued,” Powell said. “It really is a good working relationship we have with OCCY. We understand their role, and they understand ours.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have occasional disagreements, but overall we have a good relationship. We have a valuable partnership with them.”
Smith declined to comment, saying the OCCY has a pending complaint with DHS about the Deal case.
In June, Dow asked then-commission chairman Richard DeVaughn for a special meeting to discuss the Serenity Deal case and received no reply. In July, he wrote an email pushing for information about the events leading up to the girl’s death.
Hendrick responded on July 25, stating two court transcripts were still unavailable, and it was “the opinion of our legal staff that we should not issue a report until those transcripts are reviewed.”
Deaths of children
Dow responded that same day: “I disagree. I believe that we are entitled to be briefed on what we know after this much time has passed.”
DHS commissioners and officials received public criticism from lawmakers, prosecutors and child advocates last year after several high-profile deaths of children from abuse and neglect.
Deposition testimony from commissioners in a federal class-action lawsuit found many did not read a critical legislative audit of the agency, were not aware of key statistics regarding foster placements and abuse in care and did not know the child welfare division had lost its national accreditation, which is required by law.
The lawsuit, filed by New York-based nonprofit Children’s Rights, reached a settlement agreement earlier this month, and approval from a federal judge is pending.
Dow sent a request March 26 asking for relevant pleadings and court decisions regarding a lawsuit filed against the agency more than five years ago by media outlets seeking names of foster parents.
A story published in the Tulsa World about the arrest of a foster parent included an update on the suit filed by television station KOKI-23 in October 2006 with the Tulsa World joining the suit in August 2007. It requests the names and dates of birth of foster parents so reporters can check available public records for placements not in compliance with the law.
“Not sure if other commission members would be interested, but I don’t seem to recall any mention of it in any executive session that I’ve attended,” Dow stated.
An assistant attorney responded with an attached copy of a monthly legal-activities report distributed in the July 2010 executive session when the case was discussed.
Powell said Waters decides what litigation information to provide commissioners, and provides an executive summary each month during their executive session. The summary contains statistical data and significant developments on cases during the month.
In response to a critical editorial in The Oklahoman, a press release was sent Sept. 9 to media outlets by commissioners Richard DeVaughn, who was chairman, and Aneta Wilkinson, who was vice chairman, defending the agency.
Dow sent them and Hendrick an email asking who decided to write the release.
“I was a bit surprised to see this news release yesterday, as several members of the media contacted me about it and asked for comments, even though I had no idea that it had been issued until they provided me a copy of it,” Dow stated.
In September, Gov. Mary Fallin appointed to the commission former Oklahoma County district attorney Wes Lane and Yarbrough, who took over as chairman. House Speaker Kris Steele appointed a legislative work group to review the DHS program for possible reform.
“Yes, it’s certainly a difficult time in the agency’s history to take a position on the team, but that’s when it is even more important to serve,” Yarbrough wrote to Hendrick on Sept. 9. “There’s important work that lies ahead, Howard. Many are expecting, rightfully so, that the commission strengthen its oversight of the agency.
“The voices are getting louder and it sounds like a mandate which requires a dutiful response. Let’s join together and continue our commitment to express His love in service to others.”
Lane is chairman of a new subcommittee charged with reviewing all deaths of people in DHS custody. The committee is made up of mostly non-DHS staff.
Commissioner Anne Roberts compiled a list of all state groups charged with reviewing such deaths, particularly regarding child abuse, in a Sept. 29 email. She stated all had a connection to OCCY.
“So perhaps a good place for us to start would be to invite OCCY Director Lisa Smith to our first committee meeting,” Roberts wrote.
Smith said her staff made a presentation to the subcommittee and is open to having an audience with the full commission.
Original Print Headline: DHS keeps files from panel
Read more from this Tulsa World article at http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=11&articleid=20120122_11_A19_Achild904520
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
By GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
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