TULSA — A federal judge Tuesday found there is “significant proof” the state Department of Human Services failed to adequately monitor the safety of foster children in its care.
U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell made the finding in an order that allows a lawsuit against the agency to continue as a class-action case.
A trial is set for February.
The judge specifically pointed to evidence that DHS commissioners failed in their oversight responsibilities and child-welfare workers have caseloads that are too high.
The judge noted that DHS' own expert “concluded that DHS does not accurately measure caseloads and that its caseloads exceed professionally accepted standards.”
The judge pointed to a DHS report that, in March, more than 1,200 children in out-of-home care had a primary caseworker whose caseload was more than 30 children.
More than 5,300 children in out-of-home care had a primary caseworker whose caseload was greater than 20 children, according to the DHS report. More than 3,000 children had a primary worker whose caseload was greater than 25 children.
“Extensive child welfare research links high caseloads to poor decision making, increased turnover and worse outcomes for children,” the judge wrote.
A class-action case
A New York-based advocacy group, Children's Rights, sued DHS officials in 2008 on behalf of nine foster children. The group alleges abused and neglected children actually end up getting harmed further in state foster care because of problems such as overcrowded shelters and poorly supervised foster homes.
The lawsuit in 2009 became a class-action case on behalf of all children in DHS custody because of abuse or neglect. The judge's ruling Tuesday came on a DHS request to reverse that decision.
The judge refused to decertify the class. The judge found Children's Rights “presented ‘significant proof' that DHS has a policy or practice of failing to adequately monitor the safety of plaintiff children causing significant harm and risk of harm to their safety.”
The judge stressed in his 22-page order that he was not finding DHS in fact has such a policy or practice. “A determination on the merits of the claim still lies ahead,” the judge wrote.
DHS is governed by a nine-member commission of volunteers appointed by the governor. Commissioners have faced widespread public criticism this year for not taking more active roles in their oversight roles particularly after children deaths.
Gov. Mary Fallin in September named two new commissioners to help fix problems at DHS. She said then she was extremely disturbed by “the appearance of lax oversight on the part of DHS commissioners.”
During a hearing this week in the case, the judge said of the commissioners, “I understand they serve as volunteers, yet they have a duty.”
The judge said, “They can make inquiries. I find it astounding that in three years, no commissioners can recollect at a meeting an inquiry of caseworker caseloads.”
In his order, the judge noted DHS Director Howard Hendrick testified in June that “in recent history, no commissioners have asked him for a report on anything relating to child welfare, and no one has come in and talked about any of the department's data that was troubling to them.”