DHS commissioners voted 6-3 Wednesday evening to approve a modified settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit that accused the agency of physically and psychologically damaging children in its foster homes and state shelters.
“This agreement gives us the opportunity to bring in national experts ... to develop a plan that can achieve the kind of outcomes we hope for our kids and families,” Commission Chairman Brad Yarbrough said.
“I think it accomplishes so much, not just for our children, which of course is our primary concern, but it also brings together at the same table our legislative leaders, governor, the commission, the agency, national experts and consultants all working together to develop a compressive plan that addresses the needs we have to improve,” he said.
The agreement must be approved by a Tulsa federal judge before it becomes final. The agreement calls for an improvement plan to be developed by state Department of Human Services staff, DHS commissioners, the governor's office and legislators.
It also calls for the creation of a powerful panel of three out-of-state child-welfare experts who will approve and oversee the plan of improvement to Oklahoma's child-welfare system.
The three experts were identified as Kathleen G. Noonan, a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin law school; Eileen Crummy, the former acting commissioner of New Jersey's child-welfare agency; and Kevin Ryan, the former commissioner of New Jersey's child-welfare agency.
Both Crummy and Ryan already are involved in monitoring changes in Michigan's child-welfare system.
In Oklahoma, they will be paid by DHS.
Draft due by March 30
A draft of the improvement plan must be submitted to the three experts for approval by March 30.
The plan will set standards and performance targets in 15 critical areas. They include such things as caseload limits for child-welfare workers, number of available foster homes, frequency of child-welfare workers visits with children and the number of children allowed in shelters and their length of stays.
DHS will be required to operate under the oversight of three experts at least through Dec. 15, 2016, when the experts will issue a final report stating whether they believe the agency has made adequate progress toward reaching the target goals of the improvement plan. If adequate progress has been made, the agency will be released from the agreement. If not, the agreement will be extended for successive one-year terms until goals have been met.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the New York-based advocacy group that sued DHS, said this is exactly the type of agreement needed for Oklahoma to make fundamental changes that “actually protect children.”
Not all the commissioners were happy.
The three longtime commission members who voted against it questioned the wisdom of giving three out-of-state experts power over the agency and expressed concern about not knowing how much the changes will cost.
“I feel like it's a step off a high wire without a net, and I don't feel it makes good business sense,” said Commissioner Aneta Wilkinson.
“I'm not ready to give this commission away to three people from out of state,” added Commissioner Jay Dee Chase.
DHS Director Howard Hendrick said the terms of the settlement are unique to this type of litigation and indicated the agency is prepared to change.
“It is the first time a class-action civil rights lawsuit involving a state welfare system has been resolved without a (court-ordered) consent decree,” Hendrick said.
“We need to recruit and expand the number of non-kinship homes for children coming into foster care,” he said. “We need a broader array of therapeutic homes for children experiencing trauma and dealing with behavioral challenges. We also want to reimburse foster parents at better rates.”
Hendrick said the work of child-welfare employees is “intensive, stressful, and demands people with critical thinking skills” and Oklahoma “should value this work with pay that reflects the level of responsibilities expected of these workers.”
The three out-of-state experts issued a joint news release Wednesday stating they believe major improvements are possible.
“Across the country, we have seen states make dramatic improvements in how they protect and help vulnerable children and families,” they stated.
“We look forward to helping Oklahoma and children's advocates strengthen the State's child welfare system.”
House Speaker Kris Steele called the agreement “a golden opportunity to improve the agency under Oklahoma's terms.”
“The last thing anyone wanted was to see Oklahoma public policy set in a federal courtroom, so I'm pleased we're on track to avoid such a scenario,” Steele said. “Make no mistake: This is a good day for Oklahoma.”
DHS commissioners initially approved a proposed settlement Dec. 20 and forwarded the agreement to Oklahoma's Contingency Review Board for consideration.
The Contingency Review Board, which consists of Gov. Mary Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, made changes to the agreement before approving it Dec. 29. The board then sent it back to DHS commissioners for reconsideration.
Lowry's group, Children's Rights, sued in 2008 to force DHS to make improvements in its system of caring for thousands of children in its custody.
The group did not ask for financial damages in behalf of the children, but instead requested changes in the state's child-welfare system. Children's Rights also is expected to ask for millions of dollars in attorneys' fees. A judge will decide how much they will be paid.