FROM the time it was filed and for the longest time after, Department of Human Services Director Howard Hendrick showed no inclination to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged flawed practices put children in DHS care at risk. As recently as May of this year, as the lawsuit progressed, Hendrick noted that the plaintiff had “consistently been critical of all child protective agencies and has a well-established history of filing class-action lawsuits around the country.” Indeed Children's Rights, Inc., a New York-based nonprofit, has filed at least 15 lawsuits in states across the country since 1995. Many of those states entered into expensive consent decrees, something Hendrick was adamant wouldn't happen while he was head of DHS.
But something changed in the past several months. Reporting revealed breakdowns in the foster care system, particularly in cases that ended with the deaths of children. That was compounded by evidence of a disengaged governing board, the Human Services Commission, with members who knew little about important child welfare data and seemed not to care all that much about it, preferring instead to leave that sort of thing to agency staff. The board members' indifference was seen in depositions they gave to attorneys for Children's Rights. Subsequently some members of the Legislature demanded answers from commissioners about their work. Gov. Mary Fallin named two new members to the commission and assigned one of them to take over as chairman. The board approved formation of a new committee that will review child deaths that have occurred in recent years. And this week the Human Services Commission agreed to settle the lawsuit, and Hendrick concurred with the decision. Details of the proposed settlement, which must be approved by the governor, House speaker and Senate leader, haven't been released but Hendrick said the framework is different than what is normally seen in such cases, and will produce improvements that will benefit at-risk children and their families.