Children’s Rights Says Ruling Shows ‘Respect for the Rights of Oklahoma’s Children’
Tulsa — Children’s Rights today applauded a federal judge’s legal support for a class-action lawsuit that seeks widespread reform of the Oklahoma child welfare system. U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell rejected the State’s effort to dismiss the case on the basis that it interferes with the Oklahoma family courts.
“In allowing this case to go to trial, Judge Frizzell has demonstrated a clear understanding of just how dangerous and damaging the Oklahoma child welfare system is to its foster children, and how they can only rely on the federal court to protect them,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “We respect the ruling’s careful analysis, which demonstrates respect for the rights of Oklahoma’s children.”
In the ruling, Judge Frizzell found “the general forms of relief requested by plaintiffs do not pose a risk of interference with state court proceedings,” including case load limits, education and training of DHS employees and foster parents, additional foster homes and improved safety monitoring.
“The court refused to reject any of the remedies we have sought to protect the state’s children,” Ms. Lowry said. “The state asked the court to reject all of these remedies. They lost resoundingly.”
Children’s Rights joined local Oklahoma law firms Frederic Dorwart Lawyers and Seymour & Graham and the international firm Kaye Scholer in filing a lawsuit in federal court in February 2008. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 abused and neglected children statewide who depend on the child welfare system for protection and care.
According to DHS’s own reports and staff, the state has been acutely aware of how overwhelmed and overworked their caseworkers are –with many children served by caseworkers who have caseloads two to three times the national standard. Actual caseloads are likely even more burdensome because DHS does not have an effective caseload tracking system. Due to this, and inadequate support from DHS, Oklahoma’s child welfare workforce has an extremely high turnover rate — as high as 24 percent in 2011 — and more than one-third of all caseworkers have less than two years of experience.
Judge Frizzell denied a motion by DHS to dismiss the case in January 2009, and, in May 2009, ruled that the case could proceed as a class action on behalf of all children in DHS custody. DHS subsequently appealed that decision and lost. In July 2011, DHS once again tried to have that decision reversed by Judge Frizzell, but he refused holding that “plaintiffs have presented ‘significant proof’ of exposure to an impermissible risk of harm.”
On December 1, 2011, the judge ruled that the class action suit could move forward on a single, substantial claim. That ruling allowed the case to move forward on its core claim, that the Oklahoma child welfare system subjects all children in DHS custody to harm or an imminent risk of harm in violation of their constitutional rights.
For and more information about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Oklahoma’s child welfare, please visit www.childrensrights.org/oklahoma.