Federal Judge Approves DHS Settlement Agreement at Fairness Hearing, Marking Significant Victory for State’s Foster Children

(Tulsa, OK) — U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell today approved a settlement agreement that will vastly improve care for the nearly 8,000 children in Oklahoma’s child welfare system. The settlement stems from the federal class-action lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights and Frederic Dorwart Lawyers against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS).

“With the Judge’s decision, this case enters a significant new phase in which these hard-won reforms will start being implemented,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights and an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Now the real work begins, under the auspices of an expert team that has been granted extraordinary authority, and has the backing of a federal court, to help ensure that it gets done right. As a result of this four-year fight, Oklahomans will finally have a foster care system with standards, accountability and an enforceable plan of action.”

The lawsuit asserted that the state fails to protect children in foster care. Under the settlement, DHS is mandated to operate under a set of standards and required outcomes governing the foster care system and report its progress to three “co-neutrals,” child welfare experts chosen by the state and plaintiffs.
The settlement agreement, approved on January 5, requires that these standards and performance targets be set in 15 crucial areas. Several of these include child abuse and neglect in care; the number of available foster homes; caseloads of child welfare workers; and the number of children exiting the system with permanent families.

“Even before final approval by Judge Frizzell, the DHS Settlement Agreement has been a remarkable agent for change,” said co-counsel for the plaintiffs Frederic Dorwart, of Oklahoma law firm Frederic Dorwart Lawyers. “The Governor, the Attorney General, the Legislative leadership, and the new DHSCommissioners deserve recognition for their crucial support. It is exciting to see our four years of hard work rewarded. A new day has begun.”

DHS is required to develop a plan to meet the targets, including any necessary organizational changes, by March 30, 2012. If the co-neutrals reject the plan, DHS has an additional 30 days to submit a new plan. If that plan is still unacceptable the co-neutrals can develop the plan themselves.
In December 2016, the co-neutrals will determine whether DHS has made a good faith effort to achieve substantial and sustained progress for each of the targeted outcomes in the settlement during the
previous two years. If so, the Department’s obligations under the settlement will end; if not, DHS will continue to be bound by the court agreement until the co-neutrals determine that DHS has made sufficient efforts.

Children’s Rights, Oklahoma law firm Frederic Dorwart Lawyers, and the international law firm Kaye Scholer filed the lawsuit D.G. v. Yarborough in federal court in February 2008.

For more information about efforts to reform Oklahoma’s child welfare, please visit www.childrensrights.org/oklahoma.