Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Final Settlement Approved by DHS Commission Tonight

Reform Efforts Given Deadlines in the Agreement

Oklahoma City—The Commission for Human Services met this evening 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 December 20 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 December 29 which caused both sides to revisit 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.

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, who voted to approve the settlement during a Contingency Review Board meeting last week said the agreement is a golden opportunity to improve the agency under Oklahoma’s terms. 
“The last thing anyone wanted was to see Oklahoma public policy set in a federal courtroom,” Steele said. “I’m pleased we’re on track to avoid such a scenario. I’d like to thank Attorney General Pruitt and our DHS commissioners for their leadership in steering this process to a path that is truly in the best interest of Oklahoma, its taxpayers and its vulnerable citizens.”
Commission Chairman Brad Yarbrough said in a statement after the commission meeting that the Commission believes the approved settlement is in the best interests of the Department of Human Services and the children and families it serves.
Yarbrough and Plaintiff Attorney Fred Dorwart signing the
settlement agreement after the Commission meeting
“The agreement provides a realistic framework to make improvements in the delivery of child welfare services and, as a result, better protect vulnerable children,” Yarbrough said. 
Under the agreement, compliance will dissolve on December 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.
“All Oklahomans must unite their efforts to bolster the old-fashioned idea of kids growing up in good homes, Yarbrough said.  “But, when parents and caregivers put children at measurable risk of great harm, the DHS must respond in an excellent fashion.”
Howard Hendrick, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said the agreement is unique for a lawsuit of this nature. 
“It is the first time a class action civil rights lawsuit involving a state child welfare system has been resolved without a consent decree,” Hendrick said. “Both sides were willing to entertain a new approach to resolving class action civil rights claims involving child welfare systems. 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 prepared to testify in our defense put us in a position to resolve the class action lawsuit without a consent decree.”

Attorney General Scott Pruitt visits with reporters after
the Commission meeting about the settlement
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.
The Plan and the Panel
By March 30, 2012, OKDHS will present a plan to a newly created panel. The agreement provides for a panel of three national child welfare experts who will have total access to DHS and agency staff. 
Yarbrough said other national consultants will be called upon to help the agency create the plan and to meet the goals contained in the future plan.

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 Commission recognizes the difficult tasks faced daily by our child welfare staff and their commitment to professionally serve children and families,” Yarbrough said. “ But, the Commission also understands that too many Oklahomans have been dissatisfied in their dealings with the DHS. We view this settlement as an opportunity to help our staff help create better outcomes than we have previously achieved.
“The Commission welcomes the opportunity to work with agency leadership, its staff, national experts, child welfare consultants, the Governor and the legislature (both Speaker Steele and the House task force headed by Rep. Jason Nelson and President Pro Tempe Bingman). This settlement gives a place for all of these parties to help craft a real improvement plan to help Oklahoma families.”
Steele commented that the real work can begin now that the agreement has been finalized.
“The Legislature must be involved in this planning process and I’m pleased it will be,” Steele said. “DHS belongs to the public and serves the public, so it is critical for the public’s representatives to have meaningful input. We’re fortunate to have had a special House DHS working group in the field these past few months scrutinizing every aspect of DHS and looking for improvements. It’s proven productive already, as they now have a head start on much of the work that must be done in the coming weeks. 
“There is a wealth of DHS knowledge and ideas among other legislators and elected officials, as well, so we’ll be counting on everyone’s participation. Together, we’re all prepared to develop the best possible plan to improve services for the children cared for by this agency.”
Hendrick mentioned several areas where improvements are needed. 
“We are all committed to continuous quality improvement. We will continue to make improvements even after compliance with the future plan has been completed,” said Hendrick. 

“[W]e 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.” 
The state will be liable for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and expenses in an amount which will require court approval. Class members may not opt out of the settlement and the agreement settles any individual claims they may have.

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