TULSA, OK — As a new expert review of children in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services draws connections between the agency’s failures and horrific incidences of child abuse and neglect on its watch,DHS has admitted that it does not systematically track the total number of cases it assigns to the child welfare workers responsible for kids in its care, according to papers filed in federal court today by attorneys from Oklahoma, New York, and the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights.
In a new motion (PDF) filed today seeking documents that the advocates say DHS has refused to produce regarding child welfare workers’ caseloads, the organization cites evidence that actual caseload totals may be much higher than those reported by DHS – and that DHS itself says it has no way of knowing how many children it has assigned to its workers in total.
A class action brought by the advocates in 2008 seeking the comprehensive reform of the Oklahoma child welfare system on behalf of more than 10,000 abused and neglected children statewide alleges that DHS caseworkers are saddled with excessively large caseloads which prevent them from providing adequate care and oversight to children in DHS custody.
Also filed with today’s motion was a supplement to an earlier report issued by an independent national child welfare expert linking failures in DHS’s management and practices with extremely severe abuse and neglect suffered by the child plaintiffs in the class action. The report describes the harm sustained by the children as “incomprehensible, unimaginable, outrageous, and immoral,” and concludes, “These tragic stories were wholly preventable.”
“If DHS, by its own admission, is not paying attention even to the number of children it assigns to its workers, how can it expect to provide adequate oversight, treatment, and care to the children themselves?” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “The stories of the children bringing this reform class action illustrate in harrowing detail the terrible price abused and neglected kids throughout Oklahoma are paying every day for DHS’s utter failure to protect them.”
The expert report filed with today’s motion tells the stories of two such children:
- GC, a young girl who entered DHS custody at the age of nine and had, by the time her case was reviewed in February 2008, suffered neglect and repeated physical, sexual, and emotional abuse for three-quarters of the four years and three months she had spent in state custody. According to the report,DHS failed to even formally refer more than half of the 16 abuse and neglect allegations for investigation duringGC’s time in foster care — a “potentially life-threatening and ongoing agency practice.” In spite of behavior clearly demonstrating the severe emotional problems GC experienced as a result of her trauma — including cutting herself “to release the pain” — DHS failed to refer the child for psychological and psychiatric evaluations for two full years after her entry into custody. And though a shelter worker urged DHS to place GC in a therapeutic foster home, the agency instead placed her in inappropriate foster homes where she was repeatedly beaten, neglected, and abandoned.
- KT, who entered DHS custody when she was five and waited a full two years before DHS referred her for mental health evaluations in spite of her threats of suicide and other clear evidence of the abuse she had suffered. As of February 2008, KT had spent ten years and nine months in foster care, moving 81 times between foster placements — on average, a move every 49 days — and getting shuffled through a total of 28 placements during her time in DHS custody. KT was placed twice with a relative whose home had not been approved by DHS and who permitted KT’s abusive father to live in the home as well; despite two abuse and neglect referrals while KT lived there, DHS kept her in the home for more than nine months total. Over a period of more than five years, DHS placed KT in one foster home that, according to DHS documentation, continually failed to protect KT from injuring herself and others as she physically assaulted her foster parents, threatened to kill herself and others. During her more than 10 years in DHS custody, KT was assigned a total of 97 workers and 88 supervisors — a new worker on average every 39 days.
Regarding the caseloads carried by Oklahoma child welfare workers, today’s motion asserts that DHS maintains records on only the primary cases assigned to each worker — failing to account for secondary assignments added to their workloads when children are transferred from other counties. In response to requests for documentation of these secondary assignments, DHS’s attorneys reported in February 2010 that “no reasonably identifiable documents exist” which show the number of secondary case assignments and the number of children they represent.
But while DHS, by its own admission, fails to systematically track the full caseloads of its workers, some DHSworkers provide full reports to their immediate supervisors. Today’s motion cites two such instances: One worker’s total caseload included 43 children as of November 2008 according to her own report to her supervisor, while DHS’s report on her primary assignments showed only 27 children; another was responsible for 60 children as of February 2009 while DHS’s report showed only 31 kids.
These total caseloads vastly exceed those recommended under national standards, say Children’s Rights advocates — and support allegations leveled in both the class action and the expert report that excessive caseloads are preventing Oklahoma child welfare workers from providing children with the level of protection, care, and supervision they need.
Children’s Rights joined four Oklahoma law firms and the international firm Kaye Scholer in filing a lawsuit in federal court in February 2008 seeking widespread reforms throughout the Oklahoma child welfare system on behalf of more than 10,000 abused and neglected children statewide who depend on the system for protection and care. The federal judge presiding over the case 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 a federal appeals court unanimously upheld the district court’s decision, allowing the case once again to proceed as a class action, in February 2010.
The Oklahoma firms Day, Edwards, Propester & Christensen; Frederic Dorwart Lawyers; and Seymour & Graham serve as the children’s co-counsel in the class action.
The full text of today’s motion and expert report and more information about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Oklahoma child welfare can be found at www.childrensrights.org/oklahoma..
New Accusations Filed Just As Oklahoma DHS Reports Progress (News on 6 Tulsa, March 24, 2010)
Motion Filed in Foster Care Lawsuit (Fox 23 Tulsa, March 24, 2010)
Report decries Oklahoma DHS caseloads (The Oklahoman, March 25, 2010)