TULSA — A child advocacy group asked Monday for $9.5 million for the legal effort its attorneys and others put into a federal class-action lawsuit that pushed DHS into agreeing to reforms.
Children's Rights, a New York-based group, asked a federal judge for $8,345,588 for its attorneys' time on the case and $912,711 for the group's legal expenses.
The group asked that a New York firm that helped in the case be paid $262,120 for the firm's expenses.
The advocacy group's executive director, Marcia Lowry, is seeking to be paid at a New York City rate of $700 an hour. Other attorneys are seeking to be paid from $175 to $375 an hour.
The attorneys argued their request is reasonable and that their dedicated work achieved a historic and life-altering result for Oklahoma's children.
“But for the dedication and resources of the lawyers of Children's Rights, none of these changes would have occurred,” attorneys told U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell in their application for payment. “This historic and comprehensive reform did not come easily. The defendants employed the full resources of the state to oppose the reformation.”
Tulsa attorney Frederic Dorwart, who also helped Children's Rights in the case, did not charge for any of his firm's time or expenses.
Officials at the Department of Human Services have budgeted only $4 million to pay the group.
Children's Rights sued DHS officials in 2008 in federal court in Tulsa. The group sued on behalf of the state's foster children.
The group alleged in the lawsuit that DHS policies and practices are so bad that neglected and abused children are being harmed or are at risk of harm at state shelters and foster homes.
DHS commissioners agreed to make reforms to its child-welfare operations when they voted in January to settle the lawsuit.
Commissioners settled rather than risk losing at a trial and having the judge possibly order even more costly reforms. DHS is calling the improvements “The Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan.”
The plan's cost
DHS plans to hire more child-welfare workers, recruit more foster homes and phase out using shelters to care for the youngest children. Officials initially estimated DHS will need almost $100 million more in state funds a year once all the reforms are in place.
The state already has paid more than $7.6 million in legal fees and expenses to attorneys hired to represent DHS officials in the lawsuit.
The bulk of that money — almost $6.9 million — went to the law firm hired to fight the lawsuit.
Almost $700,000 more went to the attorney who represented DHS officials in the settlement negotiations.
Children's Rights has filed similar class-action lawsuits across the country, including in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.
Children's Rights contends its bill would not be nearly as high if DHS had not engaged in what it contended were “overly aggressive tactics ... motivated by patently unjustified denial of the serious, systemic problems plaguing DHS.”
DHS is expected to ask the judge to pay Children's Rights much less than it is asking.
“I believe we'll definitely question the fees,” said Richard DeVaughn, one of three DHS commissioners who voted against the settlement.
“It's about the money. It wasn't about the children,” DeVaughn said of the group's lawsuit.
“The reason they were so willing to settle at the end was we had them on the ropes.”