Experts' fees for Oklahoma child welfare system reform stir impassioned debate

Out-of-state experts hired to oversee reforms of Oklahoma's troubled children welfare system billed the state more than $355,000 for their team's first three months work after a settlement was reached in a Tulsa class-action lawsuit.
by Randy Ellis Published: April 16, 2012

Ryan said he and the other two outside experts would defer to Yarbrough for comments about the appropriateness of their contract.

Before the court settlement was reached, Ryan and Noonan were paid by attorneys on both sides of the class-action lawsuit to serve as neutral parties during settlement negotiations. The state paid half, and New York-based Children's Rights paid the other half. The state's share was a little more than $52,800.

Class-action lawsuit

Children's Rights attorneys represented children in Oklahoma's foster care system in a 2008 federal class-action lawsuit that alleged Oklahoma's foster care system is so bad that children are being harmed and are at risk of harm while in state custody. The lawsuit was settled Jan. 4.

The litigation has been costly for taxpayers. So far, DHS has paid outside law firms about $7.3 million in fees and expenses to represent the state.

The bulk of that money, more than $6.86 million, was paid to Tulsa-based Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis.

Another $472,284 was paid to D. Kent Meyers, of Crowe & Dunlevy, although that money included about $52,800 that was passed on to pay the consulting fees of Ryan and Noonan.

Under terms of the settlement, the state also will have to pay the attorney fees for the group that sued the agency. Those attorneys originally were scheduled to file their request of attorney fees by March 14, but the deadline has been extended twice and is now set for May 21.

Children's Rights attorneys have declined to provide an estimate for the amount they will request. DeVaughn said he won't be surprised if it's between $8 million and $10 million.

Proposed plan

Paying for the actual reforms won't be cheap, either. Oklahoma officials recently announced an ambitious proposed reform plan that calls for spending almost $150 million more a year on Oklahoma child welfare operations once all the reforms have been put in place. The state would have to pay about $100 million of that amount and the federal government about $50 million.

The first fiscal year, the plan would cost about $30 million more in state funds and $14 million in federal funds.

Among other things, the plan calls for hiring 200 new child welfare workers and 40 supervisors over the next two years.

It also calls for adding 1,000 new foster homes — 500 within the first year. DHS wants to increase foster care and adoption subsidy rates, as well as raise pay for child welfare workers.

by Randy Ellis
Capitol Bureau Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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