Children’s Rights filed this class action in February of 2008, together with the Oklahoma law firms Seymour & Graham, Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers, and Day, Edwards, Propester & Christiensen and the international firm Kaye Scholer, on behalf of the more than 10,000 children living in Oklahoma’s child welfare system. The federal complaint charged the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) with violating the constitutional rights of children by routinely placing them in unsafe, unsupervised and unstable living situations, where they are frequently subjected to further maltreatment and deterioration while in state custody. Among the systemic problems identified in the complaint:
- Children are abused and neglected in DHS custody at a very high rate. For the five years preceding the filing of the Complaint, 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 DHS has 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. Routinely, DHS far exceeds that limit. 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 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 DHS custody.
- 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.
In January 2009, the federal court denied two motions by Defendants to dismiss the case on legal grounds and allowed Plaintiffs’ core claims of violations of their constitutional rights to proceed. On May 5, 2009, the court ruled that the case could proceed as a class action on behalf of all children in the custody of the Oklahoma child welfare system now or in the future due to abuse or neglect. The state appealed that ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision on February 8, 2010.
In early 2011, Children’s Rights and co-counsel served the reports of five experts, detailing serious deficiencies in Oklahoma’s child welfare system. That summer, Defendants filed two more motions seeking dismissal of the case and another motion seeking to remove the class action status that the Court had previously granted. In November and December 2011, the Court denied all three of those motions in material part and the case was scheduled to go to trial in February 2012.
Shortly after the Court’s rulings, the parties negotiated a settlement agreement that was approved by the Court in February 2012 — four years after the case was filed.
The settlement agreement requires the state to develop an extensive plan to overhaul DHS, and installs three neutral child-welfare experts — the “Co-Neutrals” — to oversee the development and implementation of that plan. In July 2012, the Co-Neutrals approved the state’s second draft of this reform plan, called the Pinnacle Plan. If implemented, the plan will bring about real change for Oklahoma’s foster children. Among other things, the plan will significantly restructure the state agency; improve the screening, investigating and reporting of abuse in care; reduce the use of shelter care for older children and eliminate it entirely for younger children; and eventually bring workloads down to manageable levels. DHS will also be required to provide detailed monthly reports on its performance, and the Co-Neutrals will be able to impose remedies on DHS if it fails to meet the plan’s targets, which remedies can be converted into enforceable court orders. In a public statement, the Co-Neutrals called the plan “a five year roadmap of significant commitments.” Plaintiffs will be monitoring the State’s progress closely.