Following allegations of abuse at a facility for people with developmental disabilities in Enid, a bill is advancing in the Oklahoma Legislature that would move an oversight office out of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City, who wrote the bill, told fellow lawmakers last week that the Department of Human Services’ Office of Client Advocacy did not “do very well” watching over vulnerable adults at the Robert M. Greer Center in Enid. His bill would move the office to the Oklahoma State Department of Health in an effort to make improvements, he said.
The Greer Center treats people with developmental disabilities and mental or behavioral health conditions. At least eight Greer staff members have been charged on allegations related to systemic abuse of residents after whistleblowers reported concerns to police last year.
The Department of Human Services said staff in the Office of Client Advocacy — which has about 50 staffers and is responsible for investigating complaints for minors in state custody, clients receiving developmental disability services and foster parents — investigated abuse at the Greer Center last spring. Police records say staff had a hard time getting Greer employees to cooperate, but Department of Human Services officials said Client Advocacy staff did not have trouble investigating. Instead, the agency said it didn’t realize the extent of the mistreatment at the time.
The Office of Client Advocacy once reported directly to the director of the Department of Human Services. But a change under Gov. Kevin Stitt appointee Justin Brown, who led the agency from June 2019 to July 2022, moved the office under the director of adult services instead. The shift means the Office of Client Advocacy is under the same department that manages some of the programs it is tasked with investigating for allegations of abuse. An organizational chart from 2020 shows the change.
Casey White, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said she couldn’t “speak to why the organizational change was made,” but said it’s not uncommon for directors to make adjustments.
Rosino said families with loved ones at the Greer Center weren’t notified of the situation at the facility until months after the Office of Client Advocacy began investigating.
“Having this office inside the Department of Human Services kind of puts the fox guarding the hen house,” Rosino said in a committee meeting. “So we have to make an improvement and we have to make a change so this doesn’t happen again to anyone.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
RoseAnn Duplan, a policy specialist with the Oklahoma Disability Law Center, said transferring the office to the Health Department won’t “increase the diligence or the outcomes.” The Health Department already has oversight to do inspections or to investigate complaints in facilities like Greer because it is the agency that licenses those facilities.
“The Department of Health is having a hard enough time completing the inspections they do now in a timely manner,” Duplan said.
Senate Bill 1709 would also transfer the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Office from the Department of Human Services to the Health Department. The ombudsman’s office is responsible for investigating and resolving complaints related to long-term care facilities like nursing homes. But Duplan said federal law prohibits the Ombudsman’s office from being in the agency that licenses long-term care facilities, which the Health Department also does.
Instead, Duplan said lawmakers should consider changing the organizational structure at the Department of Human Services to give the Office of Client Advocacy more autonomy.
The bill passed out of its first committee and is now now eligible to be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Human Services Committee Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, said he is open to discussing the move.