Parties on both sides are encouraged about what the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Human Services will mean for the agency and, most importantly, for foster children. Human Services Commissioner Wes Lane said the settlement gives the state a chance to “look at some things and make them better.” Another commissioner, Steven Dow, said the board can now focus on improving the system instead of defending a lawsuit. “That's where we ought to be,” he said. The woman who brought the lawsuit, Marcia Lowry, said fundamental changes are ahead: “This is the beginning of a very exciting process.”
Oklahomans can only hope that's the case. Too many children have died or been neglected while in DHS custody, which is why Children's Rights, Inc., filed suit in 2008. The nonprofit argued that the system was dysfunctional, to the point that children placed in DHS custody because of abuse or neglect were still susceptible to being harmed.
One longtime problem, and something Children's Rights focused on, is the caseloads of child welfare workers. In short, most workers have far more cases than they should be expected to handle effectively. One way to address that is to add case workers, but that takes money. And even in a tough economy, there probably isn't a long line of people looking to take on such a difficult job for the money these men and women make.
The flip side of the coin is the sheer number of cases, which is driven by poverty, drug use, too many moms in prison, broken homes, teen pregnancies and other societal challenges with which Oklahoma is all too familiar.
The changes mandated in the settlement may indeed result in significant improvement in how DHS handles child welfare cases. That's important. But reducing the flow of incoming cases is most important, and no lawsuit will affect that.