SB 1709 could impact reporting for child welfare system, long-term care facilities (Capitol Update)

Senate Bill 1709 by Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, has flown somewhat under the radar, but it could have a large impact on the health and safety of children in the child welfare system and persons in long-term care facilities. The bill, as originally filed, transfers the Office of Client Advocacy (OCA) from the Department of Human Services (DHS) to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

The bill was amended in the Senate adding the transfer of the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman from DHS to the Health Department. But then it was amended again in the House to transfer the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman to the Office of the Attorney General instead of the Health Department.

The Office of Client Advocacy was one of many reforms created in 1982 as the result of allegations in the Terry D. federal lawsuit that targeted severe abuses of children in DHS custody. OCA was designed specifically to operate independently of the director and management of DHS because DHS employees and management were thought to have failed to deal adequately with the abuses.

The head of OCA, called the advocate general, is appointed by the Director of DHS from a list of three attorneys submitted by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth – an oversight agency also created in 1982 in the same legislation as OCA. To maintain their independence the employees of OCA can only be dismissed for cause. The law directs OCA to file reports of criminal offenses it has found directly with the appropriate district attorney, not the Director of DHS.

Originally OCA dealt only with grievances by children that resulted from policies or behavior of DHS employees or contractors toward children residing in DHS operated or contracted facilities. However, the law was amended through the years to add responsibilities regarding complaints of abuse of children not in custody of DHS as well as all persons receiving services from the Developmental Disabilities Services Division of DHS.

The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Act was passed in 1989 creating the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman within DHS to carry out the long-term care ombudsman program in accordance with the federal Older Americans Act. The State Long-Term Care Ombudsman is an employee of DHS and does not appear to have the same independence intended for the advocate general.

SB 1709 appears to be at least partially the result of a tragic pattern of alleged systematic caretaker abuse suffered by residents of the Robert M. Greer Center in Enid. The Greer Center is a contracted residential treatment facility for adults who are dually diagnosed with intellectual disabilities and co-occurring mental illness and/or severe behavioral challenges.

OCA investigated the allegations and reported findings to law enforcement as required by the statute. The investigation by law enforcement, as well as OCA, was somewhat hampered by difficulties in communicating with the victims. Six Enid men have been charged criminally in connection with the abuse and a civil lawsuit against the operator of the facility has been filed.

Some of the dissatisfaction with OCA seems to center around the fact that DHS Director Deb Shropshire was said to be unaware of the allegations and the OCA investigation until they were reported in the press. This is likely because the law intends OCA to operate independently within DHS, like the internal affairs division of a police department.

Moving the OCA and the Long-Term Care Ombudsman outside the agency they are investigating may be the best answer. But another option could have been to require the Director to be kept informed of OCA investigations unless the director is under suspicion in some way.

Interestingly, both Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, recognized to be the leading advocate for children in the legislature, and Rep. Ellyn Hefner, D-Oklahoma City, who is totally focused on the interests of persons with disabilities, expressed concerns about the bill and voted against it. If the Senate approves the House amendments and the bill is signed by the governor, it would not be surprising to see the issue revisited next session.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.