Tulsa-area DHS official sees bright future with reforms
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2012
8/13/12 at 7:28 AM
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For the past five years, Kelly Johnson has been in charge of everything in Tulsa having to do with the state Department of Human Services.
As the DHS Tulsa County director and then area director, she oversaw adult protective services, food stamps, foster care, child abuse investigations, adoptions, child care licensing, inspections and other DHS services.
"About 90 percent of my time was dealing with child welfare," she said. "There aren't too many times I get called in the middle of the night or have lawsuits filed for food stamps."
In the reorganization of DHS, Johnson has been named to head the Tulsa region in child welfare. She is one of five deputy directors in the child welfare division.
It is the first step in the realignment of the agency's staff, which is required by a law passed by the state legislature and in a settlement agreement from a federal class-action lawsuit.
The next phase is hiring 27 child welfare district directors, who will work under the deputy directors and are organized by district attorney boundaries for alignment with district courts. That is expected to be complete by Oct. 16.
Johnson, a 21-year veteran of the agency, will oversee child welfare in the counties of Tulsa, Washington, Nowata, Craig, Mayes, Rogers, Delaware and Ottawa. She will focus on child abuse investigations, placements and the Laura Dester Shelter.
"It cuts my job as county director in thirds," she said. "It's going to let me concentrate on program integrity and accountability without the noise of the other programs."
Johnson is quick to point out the need for family services as a prevention to child abuse and neglect.
"If families do not get help with food or other needs, it places more stress on them, putting them more at risk," she said. "Family services are our first line of defense. Those are important programs to child welfare."
The former child welfare structure was divided into two tracks - one for child welfare field operations, overseeing the social workers who interact with families, and another for workers specializing in policy.
The new organization will bring those together under one child welfare division.
The result should be more workers in the field to cut down caseloads, and the agency will be hiring 200 more child welfare workers. This month, the child-welfare staff members saw raises of about 5 percent in their paychecks.
The last pay bump was in 2006, and the settlement requires steady increases through the next five years.
"I'm the most hopeful I've been in a long time," Johnson said. "It's a paradigm shift for our staff, but we are ready to make this work and want to make this work. You don't work here for any length of time and not want to help kids."
Johnson, 50, is a Louisiana native who graduated with a bachelor's degree in social work from Northeast Louisiana University.
A hiring freeze in her home state in 1986 brought her to Oklahoma, where she worked in banking before joining DHS in food stamps.
After three years, Johnson transferred into child welfare and took on nearly every job available, including prevention programs, investigations, foster placements and family reunification, and the hotline.
She earned a master's degree in human relations from the University of Oklahoma and moved into the Tulsa County director position in 2007. She was promoted to area director in 2009.
"I still hear from clients thanking me that I was there to intervene, saying they didn't realize how bad off they were, and I haven't worked in the child-welfare field for years," she said. "You don't do this for a paycheck, and you don't get a lot of outside support. I knew I wanted to help families and children. That's why you do this."
Johnson said the child welfare improvement plan being implemented can be revolutionary for the state.
"Everything I see that we needed to fix is being addressed," she said. "These are changes we can do to make the system more successful for children and families. We are now being given the resources we knew we needed to have to do this. I'm hopeful we can continue to be funded for it. We can't fix it in six months."
Johnson has been involved with several local child-abuse prevention initiatives and promotes the use of research in providing recovery services for abused children, called trauma-informed practices.
"We can't live with families 24 hours a day, and no agency can," she said. "Child abuse and neglect is not just a DHS issue. This is a community issue. And we are going to be better at being partners with churches, nonprofits and families out there wanting to help us."
Johnson said the plan's commitment to recruiting more foster families, increasing pay and resources for child welfare workers and foster families, creating partnerships with community groups are key to stemming child abuse and neglect.
"There is nothing worse than being in a job you can't do - not because you can't do it but because the tools are not there," she said. "It's disheartening. But now, there is hope. The staff is excited and hopeful, and it's been a long time since we've seen that."
A look at some of the key points in the reorganization of Oklahoma's Department of Human Services:
Kelly Johnson: Tulsa County and seven other northeastern counties.
- Eliminates field operations division, which managed all county offices.
- Child welfare becomes its own division, merging the workers handling caseloads and policy specialists.
- Five deputy directors will oversee child welfare: (investigations, foster placements, shelters and family reunification.)
Calvin Kelley: Oklahoma County.
Amy Whitson: 25 counties in northeastern Oklahoma, including Osage, Pawnee and Payne.
Rick Steen: 21 counties in the central and southwest areas.
Tricia Howell: 22 counties in the east and south areas, including Creek, Wagoner, Okmulgee and Muskogee.
- One deputy director will be named to oversee foster family programs and adoptions.
- A new division called Adult and Family Services will handle services such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. County offices are being reorganized for this.
Original Print Headline: Tulsa DHS official sees bright future with reforms
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Kelly Johnson, newly named deputy director for the child welfare division in the Oklahoma Department of Human Service for the Tulsa area region, says she is hopeful about the changes and reorganization in the agency. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World