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.
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.
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.
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.
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.