Oklahoma loses a forceful public servant

June 1, 2012

Last September I wrote about Steven Dow, an outspoken commissioner in the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Dow, the only social service professional on the commission, was agitating for investigations into a series of deaths of children who were wards of the state and under DHS supervision. He was basically being stonewalled by both his fellow commissioners and the head of the agency. I hadn’t revisited the issue until I saw this tweet and wondered if it was about Dow:

It turns out it was. The basis of the reprimand from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission was that there was a conflict of interest with Dow serving on DHS because he is also the unpaid director of Community Action Program (see page 8), a Tulsa non-profit serving the low-income community. Over nine years it appears that CAP has received about $1.5 million in DHS contracts, or 0.5 percent of its revenue (see CAP’s contracts with DHS here). That said, I’m not convinced that Dow ever had an incentive to seek personal enrichment from his DHS service. After all, his wife, Tracy Schusterman, is one of the richest people in Oklahoma. She recently sold her family’s business, Samson Energy, to KKR for $7.2 billion. Nevertheless, following the public reprimand, Dow decided to resign.

This was not the first time that Dow had been the subject of character assassination attempts. The Oklahoman reported on another incident last year:

Dow said he was aware that an anonymous complaint was filed against him in June when he questioned a DHS recommendation to [make] significant increases in the child care co-pay that clients of DHS would have to pay in order to receive child care services.

“I raised a number of questions about that recommendation, one of which has to do with the very significant cost burden that I believed that it imposed on low-income working parents,” he said….

…The state attorney general’s office also was asked to look into the matter, but was unable to determine whether Dow had a conflict of interest based on limited facts it was provided, according to a letter sent to Dow in April.

What can’t be denied is that Dow’s agitation produced results. The Oklahoma Legislature turned its focus on the problems of DHS last October. Earlier this month, the Tulsa World reported that the Legislature basically now wants to abolish the present structure of DHS, which dates back to 1936:

Abolishing the oversight commission of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, requiring more transparency and changing the work criteria of child welfare staff members are among the legislative reforms sought by House leaders.

House Speaker Kris Steele gave details of the five new measures Monday at the Capitol. The four bills and one resolution come from recommendations of a bipartisan working group appointed by Steele in October to examine DHS. The group was formed after a series of high-profile deaths due to child abuse and neglect.

Steele said passage of these bills would create “a lasting transformational difference” in the agency.

It appears that Dow can also claim the scalp of Howard Hedrick, a long-serving DHS director who resigned in February. He looks to have been a mere caretaker with little interest in improving or reforming his agency. Here is how The Oklahoman described Hedrick’s lack of leadership:

As more and more children die in DHS care, commissioners there have ignored an audit calling for reform, belittled a federal lawsuit alleging children are being hurt and rejected calls for special meetings to address the ongoing tragedy.

Outspoken, unflinching advocates like Dow represent the most extreme form of political change, and they can make many enemies. It’s a pity to see an outstanding public servant like Dow get run off on a dubious charge. One hopes he can take solace in the fact that DHS is being overhauled and that its weak leader has been ousted. Most important, the focus of Dow’s concern, the welfare of Oklahoma’s children, is being addressed. Fortunately for Dow, he was recently awarded a fellowship through the Aspen Institute, where he will work to create new solutions to inter-generational poverty. I hope Dow’s efforts serve as an example to other potential change agents to get out there and stir things up.

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