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.