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

The cost is expected to reach nearly $1.5 million by the end of the first year.

“Ungodly,” Department of Human Services Commissioner Richard DeVaughn said of the oversight fees. “That's why I voted no and raised so much hell ... Where's that money going to come from? ... It doesn't make any sense.”

Current Commission Chairman Brad Yarbrough disagreed.

DHS officials, the agency's settlement attorney, the state attorney general's office and DHS commissioners all reviewed the appropriateness of the contract that calls for paying three out-of-state experts $315 an hour to oversee DHS child welfare reforms, he said.

Under the contract, DHS also is paying for the experts' professional and administrative staff and consultants, as well as funds to cover travel, conferences, meetings and materials.

“The hourly rate that was outlined in the contract was determined to be a fair and just compensation based on comparable rates being paid to other consultants doing the same type work,” Yarbrough said.

Budget submitted

A budget submitted by the three out-of-state experts called for DHS to pay their team $1,485,984 the first year, including $1,185,984 for professional services fees, $155,000 for travel, $140,000 for consultant fees and $5,000 for conferences, meetings and materials.

The three experts are to be paid $315 an hour for eight days of work a month, two data and verification experts are to be paid the same hourly rate for four days of work a month, senior staff members are to be paid $175 an hour for 15 days of work a month, analysts are to be paid $67 an hour for six days a month and an administrator is to be paid $110 an hour for four days a month.

DHS Commissioner Jay Dee Chase said the fees being paid to the three out-of-state experts work out to more than $20,000 a month, each, for just eight days a month of work.

“I think $20,000 a month for eight days work at a time when taxpayers in this state are strapped and unemployment is where it is, ... I think that's a lot of money,” Chase said.

Chase said he also finds it disturbing that under terms of the settlement, it will be up to the three out-of-state monitors to decide when their job is done.

“Three years from now, if DHS has fulfilled all of the 15 requirements that they ask of us, they can decide that their jobs are not done and they can keep their jobs for another year or two. I can't imagine anything nicer than a job paying $20,000 a month for eight days, and you decide when the job's over,” he said.

Fees for expertise

The three outside experts are able to command high fees because of their expertise in reforming troubled child welfare systems. Two of the experts, Kevin Ryan and Eileen Crummy, headed the New Jersey child welfare agency when it went through an extensive reform process that gained national praise. The third expert, attorney Kathleen Noonan, is a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. She was founding co-director of PolicyLab, a cross-disciplinary research and policy center focused on children's health and well-being at the Research Institute of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She also spent seven years working with a consulting arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a job which led her to travel across the country working to produce public system reforms for the benefit of vulnerable children and families.

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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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