DHS commissioners voted 6-3 Tuesday night to settle a federal class-action lawsuit that accused the state agency of failing children in its care.
The vote came after DHS commissioners met in a closed-door executive session for five hours. The terms of the settlement were not immediately disclosed.
The settlement still must be voted on by the state Contingency Review Board, which consists of the governor, state House speaker and the state Senate president pro tempore. The settlement will require the Department of Human Services to change how it deals with children in foster homes, group homes and state shelters.
“It gives us some real opportunities to take a look at some things and make them better,” new Commissioner Wes Lane said. “I think that's good. I think that's what the public wants. I think that's what DHS wants.”
A New York-based advocacy group sued in 2008 to force the DHS to make improvements in its care of children. The group, Children's Rights, is suing on behalf of more than 8,000 children in DHS care.
The group has alleged DHS policies and practices are so flawed that neglected and abused children actually are being harmed or are at risk of harm in state care.
A trial was set to begin in Tulsa in February, but negotiations have been under way for weeks on a settlement.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the group that sued DHS, said she was thrilled with the tentative settlement.
“I think it's a wonderful step forward for the children of Oklahoma,” she said. “I think this is the beginning of a very exciting process. It's definitely going to make children safer.”
Commissioners began the executive session at 5:50 p.m. Tuesday. Meeting with the commissioners was Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
After the meeting, DHS Director Howard Hendrick said, “While the terms of the settlement remain confidential, I can say that the terms are unique in this kind of litigation. Both sides were willing to entertain a new approach to resolving class action civil rights claims involving child welfare systems.”
“The strength of our defense and the excellent work our child welfare workers do every day changed the conversation about how these kinds of cases should be resolved. The future improvements, the details of which must yet be developed, are outlined in a framework that both sides hope will satisfy our shared desire to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families.”