The administrative team at Stilwell Public Schools needed their newly full-time student counselor to quickly figure out one major task: Which local social workers had cell phone service and when? 

When the pandemic forced the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to close offices last spring, successful remote working in Stilwell, the seat of rural Adair County, depended heavily on how close someone lived to town where there was more reliable internet and cell service. 

School Superintendent Geri Gilstrap said she knew of only one DHS social worker that could consistently answer the phone when the school had a child in need. 

She’s called old colleagues or friends to try to get updated cell phone numbers for DHS workers. The Stilwell police chief has had to wait with children at the police station after school for a social worker to arrive. The social workers want to help, Gilstrap said, but DHS closed its local office to the public in early 2020, making it challenging to contact the agency. 

“We try every number we know for them. If we know their family, if we know their cell phone number. The main number may not get the message,” Gilstrap said. “But you know, honestly, should you have to do that?”

But despite what Gilstrap hoped was a “bad rumor,” the Stilwell office wouldn’t open again. 

DHS permanently shuttered dozens of offices across Oklahoma over the last year in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic and state budget cuts. The agency said the closures, which became a necessity because of COVID-19 and budget issues and allowed the workforce not to be cut, are part of a plan to modernize. But the move means some of the state’s most vulnerable residents are facing reduced access to social services, a Frontier investigation has found. 

Half of counties where offices were closed or consolidated have poverty rates above Oklahoma’s average rate of 15.2 percent, which is already higher than the 2019 national rate of 10.5 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Okfuskee County, where a DHS office closed in March, has a poverty rate over 27 percent. 

So far, 45 in-person offices in 41 counties across the state were closed or consolidated throughout the last year. Thirty-one counties no longer have a physical office space run by DHS at all. Eight other counties already didn’t have physical DHS office space. While DHS’s strategy to shift to remote work includes embedding social workers in local community organizations, the agency has yet to recruit partners in some counties where offices have closed or been consolidated.  

Employees learning how to work remotely throughout the pandemic struggled with accessing DHS software and internet connectivity issues while facing large increases in applications for food assistance and other programs. The time it took to approve those applications slightly increased, and those trying to get ahold of a DHS worker often didn’t know how or couldn’t get an answer from a new hotline, according to DHS data and interviews. 

Social services offices closed in some of state’s poorest communities 

Over the last 10 years, Gilstrap has relied heavily on the local social workers to help students in foster care, provide summer programs and run a daycare. School administrators would talk several times a week with local employees, and Gilstrap would frequently visit the office to pick up forms or pamphlets. 

The DHS office sat just a few blocks away from the high school where Gilstrap works, across the street from a field full of grazing cattle. 

The view from the vacant DHS building in Stilwell. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

About 28 percent of Stillwell students have special needs, and the district also has a high number of foster children, Gilstrap said. In Adair County, nearly 24 percent of the population lives in poverty, and only half of households have broadband internet. In fiscal year 2020, a quarter of the population participated in federal food benefits on average every month, and in fiscal year 2019, 42 percent participated in the state’s Medicaid program, according to information from DHS.

DHS is the state’s largest agency, overseeing everything from child welfare and food and financial assistance to adult protective services and home-health care for those with developmental disabilities. 

The decision to permanently close around half of all DHS offices was made after state agencies were told they’d have to take a 4 percent budget cut last year because of falling oil prices and the pandemic. But DHS Director Justin Brown said the move is also part of the agency’s new “True North” initiative — promoting the idea of “Services First” — which is Brown’s strategy for delivering social services through modern technology and by embedding social workers in the community. 

“We were somewhat tethered to our desks and cubicles,” Brown said at an educational session with lawmakers this February. “This transforms our agency.”

DHS is now focused on recruiting community partners such as county health departments, churches, nonprofits and police departments to provide free office space and meeting rooms for social workers to do their jobs. DHS officials believe this new approach will allow employees to be available in more locations in communities across the state, and the use of new technology will further expand options for receiving and using services. 

But currently, less than half of the state’s 77 counties have any community partners within their boundaries. Eight counties still don’t have any community partnerships after their local offices were either closed or consolidated, though the agency said those communities have access to open DHS offices in the area. There are just over 110 community partners statewide, according to DHS records released to The Frontier. 

DHS exchanges funds with local health departments but pays for no other partner agreements. Some partners voluntarily agree to provide storage for office supplies, car seats or possessions of clients or children that are in the system. Some DHS workers have had to store items at their homes, sources said. 

As DHS makes this transition, schools, law enforcement and officials at public libraries say they have been left to fill the gap, directing confused residents to new online forms and scrambling to reach case workers for children that can’t be sent back to an unsafe home. And for people without a smart device or quality internet connection, accessing new online services is difficult.  

“It’s hard to get ahold of anyone,” said Hollis Public Schools Superintendent Jennifer McQueen. Hollis is the seat of Harmon County in rural southwest Oklahoma, where nearly a quarter of residents live in poverty and almost 20 percent of people under the age of 65 have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  

“Learning something new, having to travel to get services, having to jump through new hoops whether it’s on the computer or the phone, a lot of them won’t go to that extent,” McQueen said. 

When asked why the agency closed buildings in areas with some of the state’s highest poverty rates, Brown pointed to Oklahoma’s high rates of poverty generally. 

“I would also say those are the places in which you need more partners,” he said. Okfuskee County, with its high poverty rate, has seven community partner locations, including a community center, a police department and a church. 

“The intent is not to leave a community when you leave a building. The intent is to get your workforce into the community,” Brown said. 

Temporary office closures would have happened because of the pandemic regardless of future plans, Brown said, adding that many issues existed before offices closed. 

“We did not achieve perfection before this,” he said.

But schools, law enforcement and former DHS employees said it was the lack of communication about permanent closures, the new strategy to rely on community partners and where those in need should now go while they wait for community partnerships to be implemented that caused so many of the current problems. 

“We were just floored. We were so surprised with the statistics that we have for foster children, for poverty levels, that we would be a county that they would shut down,” Gilstrap said. “We’ve just been very sad for our community and for our kiddos.” 

Closures amid the pandemic sparked confusion and frustration for some

The temporary, pandemic-related office closures across the state that started in March 2020 brought confusion and frustration for some. In communities where offices began permanently closing in earnest last fall, those feelings have persisted. 

DHS set up a hotline to reroute calls that would have otherwise gone to local offices, but the number glitched throughout last summer when office closures were mostly pandemic related. Several communities were offline, struggling to reach a social worker, Gilstrap and a former DHS worker said. In an interview, Brown said that some communities had problems connecting with services through the hotline last summer. 

DHS confirmed that “a few of the hundreds of numbers across the state were not properly routed to our call center or our network of teleworking employees,” according to a provided statement. 

The agency did not keep track of how many offices were impacted, but said it addressed problems as they popped up. DHS is now working with a customer experience consultant to “improve our processes and ensure we are responsive to all customers across the state,“ a spokeswoman said. 

Chad Smith, the chief of the Stilwell Police Department. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Stilwell Police Chief Chad Smith has had to take children to the police station to wait after school until a social worker could come assess the situation. 

“It’s been horrible for us,” Smith said. “It’s a longer response time, which is the main thing. Instead of being five minutes away, they may be two hours. Now, you don’t know who you’re going to get. You go call the hotline, and they send you somebody.”

Maggie Smith, a grandmother in a town near Tahlequah, raised concerns for months that her young granddaughter was being exposed to drugs and neglect. She called the local DHS office, her state representative, higher up DHS officials. She said it felt like she was being brushed off. 

“Had I been able to go face to face with them at an office and convince them that this is serious? I definitely would have gotten answers in person if there was the option,” Maggie Smith said. “They aren’t taking me seriously.” 

A judge in Seminole County complained that he didn’t know where he was supposed to send people who needed social services after the local DHS office shut down, according to one state representative. 

Some community partners complained about DHS employees not cleaning up after themselves in office spaces, one DHS official said. And logistic issues, like where to park state-owned cars if there isn’t an office in the area or workers not having keys to access partner spaces, are still being sorted out. 

On March 23, former DHS employees met with Brown, other DHS officials and a state lawmaker to discuss concerns that wait times for services had increased because of the pandemic and the choice to permanently close several offices, according to Tom Wright, a 30-year DHS employee who attended the meeting. 

The average number of days it took DHS to approve Oklahomans for SNAP benefits, the federal nutrition assistance program, slightly increased to the highest rates in recent years as applications soared at the beginning of the pandemic when many Oklahomans were suddenly out of work. But the processing times have stayed elevated or continued to rise, even as applications leveled off. 

Processing emergency applications took two days in the beginning of the pandemic, and regular applications took almost 12 days. Today, it takes closer to 13 days to process regular applications and about a day and a half for emergencies.  

Those response times are still well under federal regulations, said DHS spokesperson Casey White. 

Response times for reports to child protective services also increased slightly during the pandemic, even though reports of abuse fell by the hundreds as kids were out of school, according to DHS data. Cases had to wait an average of 3.6 days during the last few months of the pandemic for a response when the wait was previously 3.4 days at the start of the pandemic. 

Other programs, like home-based care for the elderly, had steady response times throughout the pandemic. 

As these programs increasingly move applications online while brick-and-mortar locations close, advocates say people without a smart device or stable internet connection can be cut off from accessing services. Going to the public library may be an option, but computers and session times are limited, said Stephanie Freedle, branch manager of the public library in Westville in Adair County. 

The John F. Henderson Public Library in Westville. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The public library in Westville is not an official community partner with DHS, but Freedle’s team can spend several hours a week wading through a stream of people needing help signing up for benefits online or finding a DHS worker to answer their questions by phone. 

“At first, I thought ‘OK, they’re going to close. We’ll have a few more people swinging by to submit their documents,” Freedle said. “I did not expect more people to just outright need how much help some of them do need.” 

Lawmakers worried whether the state was ready for this new approach, especially because of Oklahoma’s sprawling rural areas and its lack of widespread broadband internet access.

A few lawmakers from western Oklahoma successfully lobbied to have DHS keep their local office open in Beckham County, though DHS said it chose to keep the office open for other reasons. Another lawmaker tried working with their county commissioners to pay for building space. 

“We have to fight to maintain a presence,” said Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole. Williams said he wanted to see the Legislature work with DHS to come up with a financial plan to keep more offices open. 

“A lot of times, when you’re in Oklahoma City developing solutions for people who live in the country, it doesn’t work real well because you maybe don’t understand the dynamic.” 

Agency rushed to close offices in the face of budget cuts

The decision to close DHS offices across the state was announced in late May 2020. 

Of 92 buildings, the agency closed or consolidated more than 40 based on location and proximity to major towns, services used, whether a building was leased or owned, the likelihood of securing enough community partners and whether buildings were in good or bad condition, Brown said. 

Oklahoma Department of Human Services Director Justin Brown poses for a photo. Photo provided

When Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Brown to head DHS in 2019, he had no prior experience working in state government, according to a resume provided by the governor’s office. In early 2020, Stitt added Brown to his cabinet as the state’s Secretary of Human Services

Brown previously was the CEO of Choice Capital Partners, the ownership entity for several senior living complexes, and he also spent multiple years in health care finance, according to a press release. While his predecessor Ed Lake had a master’s degree in social work, Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Oklahoma State University, according to the Tulsa World.  

Two DHS officials and two state lawmakers interviewed for this story called Brown visionary, saying he has the difficult job of trying to increase efficiency and efficacy in the state’s largest agency, which has, at times, struggled to adequately serve at-risk Oklahomans. 

Even before the pandemic began, the agency had ordered 6,000 laptops so more workers could begin embedding themselves in community partner spaces — a handful of employees were already in police departments or other agencies. DHS also launched new websites so individuals could enroll in benefits virtually. When the agency sent workers home indefinitely because of the pandemic, it gave them cell phones and wireless hotspots. 

But by April 2020, state agencies were aware they’d see budget cuts for the next fiscal year because of the pandemic and falling oil prices. For DHS, the cut was about $28 million. 

The agency looked for ways it could reduce costs without cutting its workforce or reducing services, Brown said. 

“The first thing that came up in just about every single division was physical real estate. It’s not as necessary as it was before,” he said. 

DHS closed about half of its brick-and-mortar locations over the last year. Counties highlighted in blue still have DHS offices. Provided by DHS

Stitt praised Brown for the move in a speech earlier this year, encouraging other state agencies to also shrink ties to physical locations. And the agency was able to flex and provide services to thousands of Oklahomans newly eligible to programs throughout the pandemic.

DHS sent out a survey in May 2020 to gauge how employees were handling the shift to remote work. Brown said much of the workforce reported being “at least or more productive working at home.” 

The survey received more than 4,000 responses — DHS has a little more than 6,000 employees — and it asked how employees were communicating with coworkers and clients, if their work-life balance had improved and if they found teleworking satisfying. 

Workers overwhelmingly said they’d like to keep some form of remote work in the future.

One question asked if workers had felt isolated, frustrated or stressed because of remote work. The survey told employees to “please skip this question if you do not feel comfortable answering.” Only about half of survey takers responded to the question, and most agreed they had felt isolated, frustrated or stressed.

Thousands of employees reported connectivity and technology issues, according to the survey. 

Reliance on community partners could mean gaps in services

The practice of embedding workers into places where the people who need help are already going — schools, the doctor, police departments — has been spreading throughout the social services industry. 

In Oklahoma City, the Homeless Alliance provides office space to DHS workers, services for veterans and mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, creating a one-stop-shop for people experiencing homelessness to receive all the services they might need.

The theory is if workers are embedded, they’ll reach people sooner than if that person eventually decided to come to a DHS office on their own. And the stigma around needing DHS services might also be diminished if workers are out in the community more often. 

Shifting the workflow of an agency as large as DHS in the middle of the pandemic, though, has left gaps, said Wright, one of the former DHS employees who attended the March meeting with officials. 

“I think there may have been some good in that idea,” Wright said. “But if you’re thinking that you’re going to partner up and meet all the DHS clients? You’re out of luck. … The community of retired workers or others view ‘Services First’ as this kind of ironic moniker that usually means, actually, services can be slower or harder to get to.”

Stephanie Freedle, branch manager at the John F. Henderson Public Library in Westville. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Freedle, the library manager, said her staff doesn’t have the training to walk someone through food benefits or whether they are eligible for Medicaid. And even if DHS did begin to offer training to community partners, it would take away resources from local groups that already tend to struggle to maintain financial stability, she said.  

“That is just not our job, and I hate to say it like that because we do want to help. But that’s what they are there for,” Freedle said. “Where’s that line going to be?” 

For existing organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, DHS created a Community Hope Center program last year initially funded by federal COVID-19 relief dollars. These organizations received money to use their existing building spaces across the state to provide food, programming and access to a DHS worker. 

For smaller or nontraditional community partners, people who are elderly or those without internet service, DHS officials said they are slowly working through connectivity and access issues.

“We’re literally having to go one partner at a time, one community at a time, one county at a time, and go ‘OK, in this place, where is it working well and then where is it not working? And what do we need to do?’” said Deborah Shropshire, director of Child Welfare Services. 

“There is no question we are interested in a future-looking Department of Human Services that is much more embedded in the community,” she said. “But that stuff, we are absolutely going to have to just continue to try to work through. Because the old way of here’s a building with a bunch of files and everybody can come here is not how we will do things in the future.”