Tulsa judge rules class-action lawsuit against DHS can go forward on single claim

A federal judge on Thursday ruled a class-action lawsuit against DHS officials can go forward to trial on its most serious claim. U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell did dismiss two other civil rights claims against commissioners and the director of the state Department of Human Services.
BY NOLAN CLAY AND RANDY ELLIS Published: December 2, 2011
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The judge noted in his opinion that Children's Rights had presented evidence that from 2002 through 2008 the reported rate of abuse or neglect of Oklahoma foster children has been 1.54 to 3.97 times greater than the federal standard even though the state doesn't report all instances.

‘Evidence of serious issues'

The judge also noted the advocacy group “presented evidence of serious issues with inadequacy of placement options, overuse of shelters and lack of placement stability in the foster care system.”

He wrote the evidence shows DHS has a shortage of foster homes, group homes and adoptive homes. He noted a Children's Rights expert concluded the shortage has led to dangerous and inappropriate placement of foster children.

About shelters, the judge wrote there is evidence children under the age of 6 are being kept in shelters for more than 24 hours and at times children are kept in shelters longer than 30 days. He noted the Children's Rights expert concluded “that the overuse by DHS of emergency placements such as shelters is harmful to children because it jeopardizes their ability to form emotional attachments ... crucial to their development.”

The judge further noted there was evidence that Oklahoma ranks 45th out of 51 jurisdictions nationwide in placement stability for foster children.

He noted there is evidence that 28 percent of the children in out-of-home care for less than 12 months in fiscal year 2010 had three or more placements. He wrote that was an increase from the year before.

“The number of foster children who had more than 20 placements was 150 in March 2010 and increased to 164 as of March 2011,” he wrote.

The judge wrote that both sides' experts, the DHS officials who are being sued, and DHS senior managers “all agree that excessive caseloads, missed visits between case workers and children, and inadequate investigations of abuse and neglect pose a threat to the safety of foster children, and that inadequate placement options, excessive use of shelters and frequent placement moves threaten the psychological and emotional health of children.”

He also wrote that Children's Rights “presented evidence — albeit disputed — that defendants' oversight of the DHS foster care program is as inadequate as to give rise to a question of material fact whether defendants have abdicated their professional judgment.”