Oklahoma DHS plans 80 new offices. Some rural counties won’t benefit.

The agency’s office modernization strategy could exclude about 30 Oklahoma counties

By: - September 1, 2023 5:30 am
Two men are pictured talking outside a blue building.

Two men talk outside a Department of Human Services office in Oklahoma City. The agency plans to open 80 new offices across the state over the next year. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Department of Human Services will move much of its staff out of large, dilapidated office buildings into smaller, more centrally located facilities.

Once the transition is complete within the next year, many DHS offices will feel less like government buildings and more like Apple stores, one agency official said.

But some rural counties will be left out.

As the agency prepares to open 80 new offices and sell many of its old, sprawling buildings, some in rural Oklahoma have expressed concerns that social services assistance remains limited. DHS previously closed its brick-and-mortar facilities in about 30 counties due to state budget cuts.

DHS officials said they don’t plan to reopen offices in those rural counties. Agency officials say community partnerships that allow staff to work out of local churches, police stations and nonprofits are working well.

Advocates, though, say that being able to get in-person assistance can be crucial for many people DHS serves who need help with things like child care, medical services, food stamps or other social service programs.

Sarah Herrian, executive director of the Foster Care and Adoption Association of Oklahoma, said DHS is adapting to modern needs by blending virtual and in-person service options.

“In the last several years, the way that we do things with DHS has changed, and I think we have gotten very used to the virtual aspect of it,” she said. “But having face-to-face contact, there’s nothing that can really replace that.”

Real estate modernization

Many DHS employees transitioned to telework during the pandemic, which led officials to rethink the need for massive offices in every county. As the agency scales down its offices, DHS will renovate and rent new, specialized facilities as part of what officials are calling a “real estate modernization project.”

“The old office strategy no longer met the needs of our workforce or those that we serve,” said Austin Marshall, DHS deputy director of human services. “We needed to pivot to spaces that fit the modern needs of our workforce.”

DHS offices help Oklahomans access disability support services, legal assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other benefits, many of which are intended for low-income residents.

The agency will open three new types of offices, including administrative offices for internal staff operations.

Human Services Centers will be able to help Oklahomans with any of their social service needs, while Children and Family Services Centers will be devoted to child welfare work.

The office changes are not intended as a cost savings measure but aim to position the agency to meet current and future business needs, Marshall said.

Because various DHS functions will be spread out across different facilities, some counties will get two or three new DHS offices. Others will get none.

For example, Enid now has three DHS offices.

But it’s a different story in Frederick, a small city in far southwest Oklahoma where the county’s only DHS office closed in early 2021.

During the pandemic, DHS closed 54 of its office buildings — leaving about 30 counties without any brick-and-mortar facilities. DHS won’t open new offices in those counties as part of this overhaul, Marshall said.

‘Lost in this new way of doing things’

Douglas Simpson’s nonprofit, Operation C.A.R.E. Ministries of Tillman County, is located about half a mile from the now-shuttered DHS office. Now, the nearest DHS offices are located in Altus and Walters, both of which are more than half an hour away by car.

Closed DHS offices

Oklahoma DHS closed 54 offices during the pandemic, leaving the following counties without DHS buildings:

Haskell, Kingfisher, Latimer, Major, Marshall, Noble, Adair, Coal, Hughes, Kiowa, Nowata, Washita, Kay, Caddo, Harmon, Harper, Greer, Murray, Tillman, Blaine, Choctaw, Craig, Jefferson, Mayes, Okfuskee, Delaware, McClain, Pawnee, Seminole, Cherokee and McIntosh

Source: Oklahoma DHS

Since DHS closed its Tillman County office, Operation C.A.R.E has taken on increased responsibilities, including assisting individuals seeking mental health treatment and those experiencing homelessness, Simpson said.

The nonprofit has applications for some social service programs on site. Simpson said his organization gets foot traffic from many elderly or disabled residents who need help applying for social security benefits.

Losing a DHS office in a rural county is a big change when many people used to seek in-person assistance, he said. Roughly 21% of the county’s residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Simpson said he helps connect people to local or state resources when necessary.

“You’d be surprised how poorly educated people are on what to do now that there isn’t a brick-and-mortar (office),” he said. “It’s as simple as calling a phone number, but they don’t see the building there anymore. They’re not able to walk into the office, and so they kind of get lost in this new way of doing things.”

DHS has more than 100 community partnerships, and officials plan to visit many of the counties that no longer have a physical office to talk to their staff and partners about how the agency could offer additional support, Marshall said.

“DHS no longer having a brick-and-mortar building in that county does not mean that DHS has left that county,” he said.

Community partnerships at work

Although DHS has an office in Duncan, the agency also solidified a partnership with the Duncan Public Library a few years ago.

The partnership began as a result of people repeatedly asking librarians to help them sign up for various social service programs, an occurrence that became more common when the DHS office was closed at times during the pandemic, Library Director Amy Ryker said.

“The reason we need a partnership with them is because librarians aren’t really trained to help people sign up for SoonerCare and sign up for SNAP benefits and those kinds of things,” she said. “We would spend a lot of hours of our day sitting with people trying to figure out how to do those things.”

Ryker said the partnership has been helpful.

Typically, a DHS staffer comes to the library twice a week and is able to work one-on-one with locals needing assistance. When people come in seeking help, librarians are able to tell them to come back when the DHS representative will be on site, she said.

DHS aims to locate its new offices near other government services and nonprofit providers.

The new Human Services Center in Lawton, for instance, is located within walking distance of the Comanche County courthouse, police department headquarters, a local library and a Salvation Army, Marshall said.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa DHS offices will be among the last to be updated due to the sheer number of people they serve, he said.



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Carmen Forman
Carmen Forman

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care from Oklahoma City. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.