(Tulsa, OK) — The Oklahoma Commission for Human Services today approved the settlement agreement that resolves the federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of nine foster children, accepting modifications made by Oklahoma’s Contingency Review Board last week. After clarifying that the Review Board did not change either the details or the principles of the settlement, the Plaintiff Class accepted the final agreement, which now must be submitted to the federal court for approval.
The lawsuit asserted that the state fails to protect children in foster care. Under the settlement, the Department of Human Services (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 co-neutrals have authority to set standards and outcomes and evaluate the state’s progress toward meeting them. The co-neutrals may obtain enforceable court orders for remedial actions when the co-neutrals determine thatDHS is not making sufficient progress.
“The system has long operated without standards or accountability, resulting in serious harm to Oklahoma’s children,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights and an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The settlement completely changes this. DHS will now be subject to the oversight of qualified experts who will ensure that necessary steps are taken to protect foster children. It is significant that these children will finally have the right to basic protections that should have been a given.”
The settlement agreement requires that standards and performance targets be set in 15 crucial areas, including:
- Child abuse and neglect in care
- The number of available foster homes, including homes for children who need therapeutic care to
address behavioral or psychological needs
- The frequency and continuity with which child welfare workers visit children
- The number of placements that children receive
- The number of children in shelters and how long they remain there
- Permanency, as in the number of children exiting the system with permanent families
- Adoption, including adoption failure rates
- Reasonable caseloads for child welfare workers
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 the co-neutrals reject the plan a second time, the co-neutrals can designate a 3rd party to develop the plan or write it themselves. Once the plan is issued by the co-neutrals it is considered operative and DHS is required to implement it.
“The settlement is a major accomplishment for the governor, the legislative leadership, the attorney general, the magistrate judge supervising the settlement and the commissioners,” said Fred Dorwart, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “This is an exciting and positive move forward for Oklahoma.”
DHS is required to provide “free and complete access” to all DHS records and personnel to the co-neutrals for the purpose of monitoring this agreement. The co-neutrals will report periodically on whether DHS is achieving substantial and sustained progress toward each of the target outcomes that they have approved.
DHS will be released from the terms of this settlement agreement if the co-neutrals determine, in a final report due on Dec. 15, 2016, that DHS has made necessary progress toward each target outcome during the previous two years. If the co-neutrals do not make such a finding, DHS will continue to be subject to the settlement agreement for successive one year periods until the goal has been achieved.
Any decisions made by the co-neutrals will be entered as judgments of the court, and can be enforced by the lawyers for the plaintiffs.
Children’s Rights, a national non-profit advocacy organization, Oklahoma law firm Frederic Dorwart Lawyers, and the international law firm Kaye Scholer filed the lawsuit in federal court in February 2008.
For more information about efforts to reform Oklahoma’s child welfare, please visit www.childrensrights.org/oklahoma.