Nothing can really prepare a person for the reality of how bad child abuse and neglect can be. That’s something Justin Brown has learned so far on his 51 days as the director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
“There is evil in the world. There are bad people out there,” he said. “The agency is the first line of defense.”
Brown recently spoke to the Tulsa World editorial board about his vision for DHS. He was joined by Myron Pope, who was on the agency’s now defunct oversight commission and currently serves as the DHS chief of strategic engagement.
The 40-year-old has an enthusiastic and optimistic outlook as he prepares to make shifts in the agency to a more customer-service focused and trauma-informed approach.
It’s an ambitious goal.
The $2.4 billion state agency has 5,900 employees in 92 offices throughout the state. It’s a big bureaucracy tasked with some of the most vital responsibilities to ensure the safety and basic needs of Oklahoma’s most vulnerable residents.
Brown wants to inspire large cultural shifts while ensuring no setbacks in daily operations. Think of it like driving a car and fixing it at the same time.
The challenge doesn’t faze Brown.
“Ultimately, we are here to build relationships in the community,” Brown said.
His first move was to create an executive team of four people — chief of strategic engagement, chief operating officer, chief of innovation and chief of staff. Three of those already existed but are assigned differently.
Brown reorganized the top administration to reduce the number of people reporting to the director from about 12. The idea is to streamline the structure.
He’s spent his first weeks in office trying to meet as many DHS workers in county offices as possible and figure out the priorities of the agency.
DHS collects a massive amount of data that can be overwhelming. To cut through that, Brown asked the division directors to prioritize what bits of information are most meaningful to clients.
What are the numbers that make the most difference in the lives of Oklahomans? How are the programs measuring success?
Based on that and input from staff and advocacy groups, DHS will releasing about five priorities for each program division in about a month.
Brown calls this “Finding our true north.”
“I want to understand truly what is important to the agency and to the person we are serving,” Brown said. “In this process, we are finding out what our true north is. … The success for DHS will really be shown 10 or more years down the road in other agencies: lower incarceration rates, higher graduation rates or a higher GDP.”
Usually, DHS comes into the headlines when things go wrong, and it’s not hard to find people frustrated by the agency.
That wasn’t helped by years of short-sighted budgeting by the Legislature and revenue failures. DHS saw cuts between $25 million to $45 million in consecutive years. It led to smaller staffs, cuts in programs and loss of federal dollars.
Oklahoma is on the upswing but no agency is back to the same funding levels.
Brown said he is still getting a handle on budget details but hasn’t found wasteful spending. He’s interested in finding how to better leverage federal to state money.
“I need to be able to look at the Legislature, governor and taxpayers to say ‘I know the money is spent efficiently with minimal or no waste, fraud or abuse.’ When I can do that, I can go to those people and ask for what we need.”
Part of that is empowering and getting more people at the front lines. However, taking care of staff is part of reducing turnover.
Many areas of DHS, such as abuse investigations, are emotionally draining. It’s not unusual for workers to get into the profession after experiencing difficulties in life and want to give back to the community.
But this type of work can add to their trauma. Ideally, social workers would have an outlet to talk to a counselor or mental health professional.
“There is an immense amount of trauma we have internally. You can feel it walking into the offices,” he said. “We’ve got to appreciate the very difficult challenges our people who work for us face. One of our goals is to build DHS into a trauma-informed agency and understand (Adverse Childhood Experiences).”
To do this, Brown is meeting with university researchers to determine how to move toward a trauma-informed approach for staff and clients.
Brown has been doing a lot of this: reaching out to other organizations.
“Historically, DHS has looked inside, at itself, to find solutions,” Brown said. “We have got to turn around and look at the world and see who can help us with the problem. We want to engage with other programs. We truly are working to be a trauma-informed agency.”
In 2012, Oklahoma voters abolished the oversight commission and gave the governor authority to hire and fire the director. It also got rid of monthly meetings where the public could address the board, and decision making was make in open session.
Brown said he believes in public transparency and plans to use social media and other forms of digital communication to engage with Oklahomans.
“A way to help us is to tell us when there is a problem,” he said. “I can’t know about it unless I’m told. That is the culture we are building within the agency. There have been walls all over the place that we are breaking down.”
Brown comes from a finance background with his last position as CEO of Choice Capital Partners, which owns and operates assisted living and memory care centers in three states. His companies are not regulated by DHS, and he has stepped aside from their day-to-day operations. He has volunteered on numerous state and local nonprofit boards.
His absence of social work experience and training created criticism about Gov. Kevin Stitt’s choice to run DHS. But Brown says all the right things to inspire an upbeat and confident view of the agency’s future.
The success will depend on the expertise of people Brown hires around him and his skill at leadership navigation during difficult — and even tragic — moments. He will need to learn and think fast while adjusting quickly to changes outside his control.
Oklahoma has a myriad of poor social outcomes including child abuse, hunger and poverty. The state needs a strong safety net and a coordinated way to bring philanthropic partners together.
Brown’s passion for using DHS as a way to make Oklahoma better is undeniable, and my hope is he is the right person to do the job.
He didn’t know Stitt before getting a phone call about the DHS job. He isn’t sure who made the career-change recommendation but says prayer and counsel found it was meant to be.
“It was divine for me,” Brown said. “When I serve, I am all in.”
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