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How to Fix DHS

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- An independent audit of the Department of Human Services says Oklahoma children are removed from their homes almost twice as much as the national average.

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It adds that the number of children in the custody of state child welfare workers places a strain on the state system as well as children and their families.

The $400,000 audit by Hornby Zeller Associates was released Wednesday by House Speaker Chris Benge and other lawmakers.

The audit makes 25 recommendations to improve the system. Among them are making sure that children are removed from their homes only if there is an imminent safety threat and that the agency is involved with local law enforcement officials in all removals of children.

"It will define safety and risk so we only remove kids when it's imminent danger to their health," Rep. Ron Peters (R- District 70) said.

The measure also includes phasing out large shelters, like the Pauline E. Mayer Shelter in Oklahoma City. Instead, children would be placed with relatives or emergency foster parents. Also, do away with what's called "standing orders." Right now, law enforcement can remove children without any involvement of DHS.

"Law enforcement will be asked to call DHS first, let DHS come out and assess the situation and see if it's possible to allow the child to remain in the home," Peters said.

It's hoped the changes would cut down on the workload of DHS workers since fewer children would be in the system. Money spent on custody care would be shifted to helping parents cope within their homes.

"Here's the warning; if we don't make progress the federal courts will take it over, like they did our corrections system many years ago," Richard Morrissette (D-District 92) said. "We've got control of the problem, now we need to work at it."

"What would make our jobs easier at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is when parents learn how to take better care and responsibilities of their children that they bring into the world," DHS Spokesperson George Johnson said.

The report also outlined the need for more training for DHS workers as well as more money for foster parents. Also, it's recommended the state create one hotline number to report neglect and abuse and a passport program. It would contain health and educational information about the child for foster parents.

The proposed legislation also calls for creating an oversight committee to make sure all the recommendations are being made.

House Bill 1734 will be heard in committee on Monday.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of foster children last year seeks to overhaul DHS.

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