In the sports realm, the worst thing that can happen to an embattled head coach is to receive a public "vote of confidence" from the team's owner or the college's athletic director or president.
I'm not sure why, but it's often the kiss of death -- a sure sign that the coach's departure is imminent and anything but voluntarily.
The same rule of thumb applies to politics. A disgraced lawmaker receives the public backing of his family and closest friends, defiantly declaring he won't resign...just before he resigns "for the good of the party" or "cause" or "nation," blah, blah, blah.
What this actually means is the powers-that-be concluded a "change" was necessary in order to sell the general public on the idea that something -- anything -- is being done to improve the situation.
I couldn't help but think about this public do-si-do as I recently watched Gov. Mary Fallin introduce two new appointees to the state Human Services Commission.
To portray the state Department of Human Services as troubled is akin to describing this summer's weather as hot -- an understatement of Biblical proportions.
And to suggest agency director Howard Hendrick is embattled is akin to dismissing Richard Nixon's Watergate as a garden-variety PR problem -- it doesn't begin to capture the reality of the situation.
No governor -- and Fallin is no exception -- calls a press conference to announce routine appointments to state boards and commissions. The decision to summon the media to her second-floor conference room to name Wes Lane and Brad Yarbrough to the Human Services Commission was a signal to all that she views this as a big deal -- a sea change when it comes to oversight of the agency.
What was even more significant -- and attracted scant mainstream media attention -- was the tenor of Fallin's remarks about Hendrick.
"He has a big heart for public service," she said when asked about his performance.
Later, she noted, "He cares about our children and families."
A short time later, House Speaker Kris Steele issued a written statement praising the appointments and urging the commission to undertake a performance review of Hendrick -- which it hasn't done since 2004 despite bylaws requiring an annual review.
"Performance reviews," the speaker noted, "are important to good governance because they reveal to agency leadership what they are doing well and where improvements are needed."
Although he's a former Republican state senator, Hendrick has been in the crosshairs of GOP lawmakers in recent years after a series of epic child welfare case failures.
Frankly, it's easier to blame one person -- Hendrick -- than it is to make the really tough decisions and cough up the money necessary to upgrade the system to the point where it really protects children.
Is he on his way out? Nobody is saying so publicly. But the signs certainly don't look encouraging, no matter how terrific and honorable a person he may be.
As much as anything, Hendrick may be a victim of being one place too long -- he's headed the massive agency since 1998. Sometimes leaders conclude a change would be in the best interest of all, helping turn the page and launch a new -- hopefully more productive -- era.
It's also fair to say Hendrick's never been given the tools necessary to build as foolproof a child protection system as possible.
How so? One example: Oklahoma's child welfare workers always have carried two and three times as many cases as national experts recommend -- about 12 to 15 cases are about as much as one person can effectively administer. When you're carrying 23 or 24 -- as a 2009 study found -- some cases are going to slip through the cracks, endangering the lives of the very children the state is charged with protecting.
Thus, we end up with heartbreaking cases like the deaths of five-year-old Serenity Deal and two-year-old Kelsey Briggs, both after being placed by the state in the custody of a family member.
The biggest problem, though, may be that Oklahoma has thrown together to many functions under one roof.
Since 2008, state Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, has tried unsuccessfully to persuade fellow lawmakers to break the agency of comprised of 7,000 employees stretched across all 77 counties into small, more easily managed parts.
With the help of concerned citizens, Morrissette did help win legislative approval of a $420,000 performance audit of the department.
"Auditors Hornby-Zeller made quite a point of the fact that Oklahoma had higher rates of children in state custody compared to other larger states and that reflected poorly upon our national image," Morrissette said. "They suggested that these numbers could be an artificial and inaccurate reflection of child abuse and neglect in Oklahoma.
"But I knew that because we had group homes that could accommodate many abused children long term, and a standing order that allowed the police to take children they feared were in immediate danger for placement in the group home, that most likely, the statistics were an accurate reflection of the peril our children really faced.
"To close the shelters simply to bring down these poor stats was a diversionary tactic to make Oklahoma appear less of a dangerous place for children."
Now, he said, Oklahoma has "better looking stats but no standing order to allow police the right to intervene directly. Overworked and underpaid DHS child welfare workers now rush to visit the sight of suspected abuse and render a determination as to the need to remove a child from the family home, and if it is determined that abuse has occurred, a family member from outside the home is sought out for kinship foster placement.
"And children continue to die here from abuse at a rate of 50 per year, on average, many times not because DHS workers employ poor judgment but because we are pulling these familial caretaker candidates from the same unhealthy circumstances."
It's way past time for the Legislature to seriously, systematically take a look at DHS -- whether it should continue in its present form or, as Morrissette suggests, be broken up.
Further, it's way past time for the Legislature to recognize that you can't run an elite child welfare system on the cheap. If lawmakers are really serious about reducing the odds we'll end with more Serenity Deals and Kelsey Briggs, they're going to have to hire enough personnel -- and pay them appropriately -- to be able to monitor these often tricky cases.
It's appalling, really, to think any of Oklahoma's children could be left in life-or-death situations, left to fend for themselves, because we as a society aren't willing to bear the cost. One senseless death is unconscionable.
I know what you're thinking: Here goes that liberal again, insisting that throwing taxpayer money at the problem is going to fix it.
Read my lips: Money alone isn't going to make the system foolproof. But studies have shown that Oklahoma's underfunded, overworked child welfare professionals simply can't keep up. Worse, too many experienced, capable workers are simply walking away from their jobs, even in a bad economy, because they are under such pressure and so poorly paid.
As Viola Miller's March 2011 report on the state system noted, the state DHS performance audit determined that 30 percent of child welfare workers quit within the first year -- meaning, if nothing else, we taxpayers are footing a higher bill than necessary to keep training an excessive number of new workers.
Miller, the former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, also cited a December 2010 study that 35 percent of child welfare workers in Oklahoma had less than two years experience. In plain language, that means "rookies" are handling an excessive caseload, some potentially life-or-death.
Moreover, Miller's report, prepared for those suing the state in federal court over failures in its child welfare system, notes that starting salaries for state child welfare workers is below $30,000 -- low by national standards.
I hope Fallin is right -- that her two new appointees help bring important oversight to a besieged agency. I also hope Steele and other legislative leaders are serious about tackling the agency's problems -- not just using it as a whipping post to score PR points.
Finally, I hope that Hendrick is given the tools he needs to make the agency -- in whatever form -- work. He's a decent, honorable man who's worked his heart out to serve Oklahomans in distress.
Unfortunately, all too often in public service, nice guys don't just finish last. They end up finished -- period. Will that be Hendrick's fate, too?
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net
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