Advocates File Federal Class Action Lawsuit Seeking Reform of Oklahoma Child Welfare System

TULSA, OK — Outlining a decade-long slide into disrepair and across-the-board failure to protect children in state custody from often extreme abuse and neglect, the national child advocacy group Children’s Rights has joined four Oklahoma law firms and the international firm Kaye Scholer in filing a federal class action today seeking top-to-bottom reform of Oklahoma’s child welfare system on behalf of the more than 10,000 children placed in its care.

The lawsuit, known as D.G. v. Henry, charges Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services (DHS) with violating the constitutional rights of children by routinely placing them in unsafe, unsupervised, and unstable situations in which many suffer further abuse — and some die — due to the department’s longstanding failure to correct widespread problems that prevent it from providing adequate care and protection.

“Oklahoma has long maintained one of the most dangerous and badly mismanaged child welfare systems in the nation, and thousands of children have suffered under nightmarish conditions for years as a result,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is disgraceful that we have to seek a federal court order to force the state to begin fixing problems that it should have addressed many years ago. But it is clear that this is the only way to protect Oklahoma’s abused and neglected children — and that is what this lawsuit is about.”

The lawsuit names nine children as plaintiffs to represent the class. They range in age from four months to 16 years and share a history of suffering in DHS placements. They include:

  • A 10-month-old girl who has been moved more than 16 times between grossly inappropriate placements, including one in which her skull was fractured through severe physical abuse and another where neglect led to her suffering life-threatening dehydration and seizures.
  • A five-year-old boy who, in just 12 months in state custody, has been moved through nine placements, including four emergency shelters in four different counties.
  • A 13-year-old girl who entered foster care after she was sexually abused, suffered further sexual assaults in aDHS facility, and has been denied necessary treatment for the psychological trauma she continues to experience.

Noting that pernicious problems in DHS’s treatment of foster children have been documented continually for at least 10 years in reports issued by the federal government and the state of Oklahoma itself, the lawsuit asks the U.S.District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma to permanently enjoin the state from subjecting plaintiff children to practices that violate their rights — and to order remedial relief for a host of serious problems. Among the charges:

  • Children are abused and neglected in DHS custody at a very high rate. For the past five years, Oklahoma’s rate of maltreatment of children in foster care has been among the three worst in the nation — and in two years it was the worst. Children in DHS custody are subjected to physical violence, sexual abuse, and extreme neglect — sometimes at the hands of the staff at DHS facilities — at rates more than four times the national norm and, at times, exceeded rates of abuse and neglect in the general population of Oklahoma.
  • DHS places children in unsafe homes and overcrowded, understaffed emergency shelters. Because DHShas failed for years to maintain an adequate number of foster families who can take in children removed from abusive homes, the children are placed wherever a bed is available. The department routinely places children, including infants and toddlers, in overcrowded emergency shelters — intended, as their name suggests, only for short-term stays — for as long as six months. Other children get placed in unsafe group homes, where staff members lack adequate training and fail to provide necessary supervision. Still others are placed with inappropriate foster families who have not undergone background checks for criminal and child abuse offenses.
  • DHS bounces children from one unstable foster placement to another. Recent state data shows that 34 percent of Oklahoma’s children in foster care have been moved through four or more placements during their time in state custody, and 17 percent — almost 2,000 children — have gone through six or more. Many siblings who enter foster care together get separated from each other and denied any contact at all. These frequent moves further compound the trauma of being removed from an abusive or neglectful home and take a severe toll on children’s health and well-being.

The lawsuit links DHS’s inability to protect children from abuse in state custody to longstanding problems in its management and infrastructure, including:

  • Excessive caseloads and turnover among DHS workers. National standards limit caseloads to 12 to 15 children per caseworker. DHS routinely assigns its employees more than 50 children each, and some carry caseloads of more than 100 children. The excessive burden limits workers’ ability to adequately monitor the children for whom they are responsible — and contributes to high turnover rates that lead, in turn, to an inexperienced workforce.
  • Dangerous monitoring and oversight practices. National standards of good practice and DHS’s own policies require caseworkers to visit children in foster care placements at least once per month (and once a week if children are placed in emergency shelters). Due to excessive caseloads, DHS caseworkers routinely fail to visit children in foster placements for as long as six months at a time. The department also routinely approves foster placements in homes that have serious safety issues and with families that have not been adequately checked for criminal and child abuse offenses. These failings are compounded by DHS’s failure to thoroughly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and place children at serious risk of suffering abuse and neglect in DHScustody.
  • Insufficient efforts to develop and maintain an adequate pool of foster care placements. Despite being on notice for years of a drastic shortage of foster homes and other appropriate placements, DHS has not taken even the most basic steps necessary to correct the problem. The department’s failure to provide foster parents with adequate reimbursement for the cost of providing for the basic needs (including food and clothing) of children in foster care exacerbates the issue. Oklahoma’s basic rate — which amounts to less than $12 per day — falls far short of the real cost of caring for foster children and contributes to the shortage of available homes.

“DHS has subjected all too many foster children to appalling treatment, even though advocates throughout the state have been calling for reform for years,” said Tom Seymour, attorney with Seymour & Graham of Tulsa. “With this lawsuit, we are asking the federal courts to correct the constitutional injustices meted out to our most sacred assets, which are this state’s children.”

Children’s Rights and Seymour & Graham are joined in representing the plaintiffs in D.G. v. Henry by the Oklahoma firms of Frederic Dorwart Lawyers; Doerner, Saunders, Daniel & Anderson; Day, Edwards, Propester & Christensen; and the international law firm Kaye Scholer.

“Although this case focuses on Oklahoma, the problems it highlights in the treatment of abused and neglected children represent a national crisis,” said litigation associate Mark Beckman of Kaye Scholer. “We are proud to stand with Children’s Rights and the attorneys and advocates of Oklahoma in bringing these issues to light and beginning the process of reform.”

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