Victory for OK’s Abused Children: Deal Reached to Repair State’s Foster Care System

More than 5373999_orig38,000 abused and neglected children depend on the Oklahoma child welfare system for care and protection. But the very system charged with protecting Oklahoma’s kids had continuously failed to fulfill its obligation to these already vulnerable children.

Now, thanks to the unwavering advocacy of Children’s Rights and Tulsa-based law firm Frederic Dorwart Lawyers, there is hope, will, and most importantly, a solid agreement, for change.

In a landmark victory for Oklahoma, its children and those who care about the way vulnerable children are treated, the state’s Commission for Human Services approved a settlement agreement Wednesday to resolve a lawsuit seeking widespread reforms throughout the Oklahoma child welfare system.

“For far too long the people of Oklahoma have been forced to tolerate a child welfare system that lacks basic standards and allows children to be abused at alarming rates,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights and attorney for the plaintiffs. “This agreement will change the way foster children are treated. It gives experts the power to diagnose problems that have allowed the system to be so bad for so long, and requires the state to develop and implement strategies to address them under the oversight of these experts.”

Oklahoma’s child welfare system has operated without standards or accountability, and for years children have suffered as a result. High rates of kids suffer maltreatment while in state care. Children stay too long in inappropriate shelters instead of family environments. Kids are bounced between foster care placements too frequently. And costly delays and incorrect findings in child abuse and neglect investigations are common.

Prior to the settlement, Oklahoma officials had continuously fought the notion that their system was in desperate need of repair. Their challenges came despite widely reported deaths of children in foster care, tragic accounts of children languishing for years in state custody and unreliable sources of information about the true state of child welfare.

After mounting pressure from the public and Children’s Rights, Oklahoma officials agreed to enter into a court order to mandate reforms to its child welfare system, and to develop a real plan that sets standards and addresses the cause of maltreatment of kids.

The strength of the settlement lies in the authority it gives to three national child welfare experts, or co-neutrals, to set targets and require the state to take specific actions to meet them. The settlement requires that standards and performance targets be set in 15 critical areas such as the numbers of available foster homes, times a child moves between placements, cases on a child welfare worker’s caseload, visits between child welfare workers and children and children exiting the system with permanent families. The expert’s findings and recommendations will become enforceable court orders.

The settled lawsuit was filed in federal court in February 2008 by Children’s Rights, Frederic Dorwart Lawyers and international law firm Kaye Scholer.