Oklahoma City -- The Commission for Human Services met late on Jan. 4, 2012 and approved changes made by the Contingency Review Board (CRB) to a settlement agreement in the DG vs. Yarbrough case, a federal class action civil rights lawsuit involving Oklahoma's child welfare system. The settlement agreement was originally approved on Dec. 20, 2011 by the Commission and Children's Rights, a child advocacy group representing children in the state's foster care system in the lawsuit.
The CRB reviewed the settlement and approved it with changes on Dec. 29, 2011 which caused both sides to review the agreement again. Children's Rights also signed off on the CRB's changes to the settlement which now heads to federal district judge Gregory Frizzell for approval.
"The terms of this settlement are unique in this kind of litigation," said Howard Hendrick, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. "It is the first time a class action civil rights lawsuit involving a state child welfare system has been resolved without a consent decree."
Under the agreement, compliance will dissolve on Dec. 15, 2016 provided the state complies in "good faith" with the proposed improvements for two consecutive years prior to that date. The proposed improvements must still be developed but involve targets for identified practice areas named in the agreement.
"Both sides were willing to entertain a new approach to resolving class action civil rights claims involving child welfare systems," said Hendrick. "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."
"We have been extremely fortunate to have had choices that other states did not have," continued Hendrick. "The strength of our defense and the national experts to testify in our defense put us in a position to resolve the class action lawsuit without a consent decree."
"This settlement is unlike any other agreement Children's Rights has ever made in any state. In no other state have they ever agreed to settle without a consent decree."
The settlement agreement identifies areas of practice improvements where OKDHS will focus attention. The details of these areas will be incorporated into a plan that will be developed by the agency over the next 55 days. By March 30, 2012, OKDHS will present a plan to a newly created panel of three persons outside Oklahoma with child welfare experience. Both OKDHS and Children's Rights participated in the selection of the panel members. The panel will monitor the state's compliance with the proposed improvements.
Under the agreement, compliance with the agreement is based on the "good faith" standard, not the "substantial compliance" standard normally involved with consent decrees. The state will be liable for the plaintiff's attorney fees and expenses in an amount which may require court approval. Class members may not opt out of the settlement and the agreement settles any individual claims they may have.
"We are committed to continuous quality improvement and we have consistently identified and made improvements. We will continue to make improvements even after compliance when the future plan has been completed," said Hendrick. "The strengths and list of child welfare achievements are many, including an adoption rate that is more than twice the national average per capita over the last five years."
"Nevertheless, we need to recruit and expand the number of non-kinship homes for children coming into foster care. 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 for their dedication to caring for Oklahoma's abused and neglected children."
"As an agency, we need to support our talented child welfare staff. We know this work is intensive, stressful, and demands people with critical thinking skills. As a state, we should value this work with pay that reflects the level of responsibilities expected of these workers."
"Some of these improvements, particularly those involving recruitment and retention of child welfare workers and foster parents, will require additional state dollars. We will need the support of the Governor, the legislature, and the judicial system to commit the resources needed to ensure that Oklahoma's child welfare system can meet these demands."