Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
Jami Ledoux is not a household name for most Oklahomans. But rest assured, it is for anyone involved in the child welfare system (except probably the children, who likely do well to tell you the name of their last caseworker). Jami recently resigned as director of child welfare services for DHS. When she resigned she described the job as “one of the most difficult jobs in state government.” There are a lot of difficult jobs in government, but among the most difficult, like child welfare director, are the ones that bring the full power of the state to bear on individual lives.
I take the term “child welfare services” to encompass the broad range of services provided by DHS, the goal of which is to remove children from unsafe surroundings where they are subject to neglect, abuse, and even death and to place and supervise them in a stable, loving, and enriching environment where they can be safe and flourish. The final goal is to find permanency for the children until they can grow into healthy adults, where possible. One can only imagine the terrible burden felt by the men and women in DHS who take on that responsibility.
During Jami’s tour of duty, the job was made much more difficult by the fact that Oklahoma had suffered years of underfunding and lack of adequate attention to the system which culminated in the filing of a federal lawsuit. Every decision bears the risk of serious injury or death of a child. Even while operating within a well-run child welfare system – if there is one somewhere – a wrong decision can result in scandal, recrimination, and consequences. But in Oklahoma these decisions are made against the backdrop of a system already found to have been a failure and court-ordered to improve. Everything is under scrutiny by the political powers, the governor and legislature, the court and its monitors, and the press and public. In effect, the director’s job is a 24×7 job.
The job is of managing change that Jami took on is always difficult. How much change is necessary? Does a proposed change protect the children or protect the system? Where can meager resources best be used? How do you compensate for things beyond your control? What do you do when things go wrong? Jami faced all these issues and more in addition to the normal policy and people management of a large organization. She said when she accepted the job “the stress and toll of functioning at this level would be too great to last more than a season.” We Oklahomans should realize and be grateful there are many of our fellow citizens like Jami in state government who do this hard work of governing. They do it typically in anonymity, unless something bad happens, while the rest of us go about our business usually unaware of the crises happening in lives all around us.