News On 6 Investigates: Department Of Human Services Under Fire

Friday, May 9th 2008, 12:51 pm
By: News On 6

So many people have complained about the Oklahoma Department of Human Services over the years, DHS may as well be a four-letter word.  But now the Department of Human Services is facing more than just complaints.  It's the target of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the 10,000 children in its foster care system. 

News On 6 anchor Scott Thompson says a News on 6 Investigation uncovers why the lawsuit could signal the end of DHS as we know it. 

"School just became my outlet, and I just used school as my outlet so that I wouldn't always be fighting and not getting along with my foster parents and stuff," said former foster child Sasha Gray. 

If DHS's foster care system is broken, Sasha Gray would know.  Sossha spent 14 years in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.  She says DHS moved her 42 times, leaving her with 17 different foster families along the way.  Her younger sister and two younger brothers are still in the system. 

Sasha says it was difficult living with some of those foster families.  Some treated her as an unwelcome guest.  One foster father tried to get into bed with her while wearing only his underwear.  But one of the worst moments came at the hands of a caseworker. 

"She had me call my brothers and sisters and tell them that my mom had given up her rights at 13!  I had to call them and say 'Oh, mom is never going to be able to get us again now,'" said Sasha Gray. 

WATCH THE VIDEO: Sasha Gray talks about her ordeal of growing up in foster care in Oklahoma.

And yet Sasha is considered a DHS foster care success story. 

"How can you allow your public tax dollars to go for something so terrible?" said Children's Rights founder Marcia Robinson Lowry. 

Stories like Sasha's convinced a group called Children's Rights to force Oklahoma to change its ways. Based in New York City, Children's Rights says its goal is to make state-run child welfare agencies answer for how they treat children.  Children's Rights has brought about reform in Connecticut, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee.  But it's also taken on systems run by Atlanta, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. 

In February, the group filed a federal class action lawsuit against Oklahoma.  As defendants the suit names Governor Brad Henry, DHS director Howard Hendrick, and every member of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services, the group that oversees DHS.   

To read the complaint, CLICK HERE.

"What we're trying to do is represent these children in court and give them some sort of a voice so that the government will be held accountable for the terrible things that are happening to these kids," Marcia Robinson Lowry said. 

WATCH THE VIDEOMarcia Robinson Lowry talks about the problems with Oklahoma's child welfare system.

Listing them only by their initials, the lawsuit names nine children as plaintiffs.  It also spells out it claims about exactly how the foster care system is failing each child. 

At the time the suit was filed, D.G. was a five-month-old boy who'd been in DHS custody since shortly after his birth.  He'd already been moved at least four times.  According to the suit, he suffered a fractured skull in an understaffed shelter, when he was dropped by a DHS worker carrying him and another baby. 

C.S. was an eleven-month-old girl who'd already been moved 17 times.  The suit says she suffered a fractured skull when she was abused in a foster home.  She then suffered dehydration and seizures in a group home, and went months with a severe, untreated respiratory tract infection.  

R.J. is a 12-year-old boy who has been in and out of DHS custody for eight years.  He's been moved more than 20 times.  He once spent 18 months in a foster home where he was regularly beaten with switches.   

G.C., a 13-year-old girl, has been in DHS custody for the past four years.  She was beaten in one foster home, and was sexually assaulted in an institutional facility. 

As heartbreaking as the stories may be, the founder of Children's Rights says there's another issue here. 

"I think its well beyond whether you care about children or not.  It's a good government issue.  The government is paying money for the destruction of children's lives," said Marcia Robinson Lowry. 

"You want the language your way?" said Rogers County Juvenile Court Judge Dynda Post. 

Judge Dynda Post is a district judge for Rogers, Craig and Mayes Counties, who also handles juvenile cases.  She says DHS is failing, and from her perspective on the bench, the biggest problem is that by law the agency doesn't have to answer to the courts. 

"When there's a problem with the way a worker has done a job, if there's a problem with services not being provided, that's all DHS's responsibility.  They are not directly accountable to the courts," said Judge Dynda Post

If DHS isn't answering to the courts, who is DHS answering to? 

"Only themselves as I understand it," Judge Dynda Post said. 

WATCH THE VIDEOJudge Dynda Post talks about the lack of DHS accountability.

DHS has chosen to fight the lawsuit, hiring a firm in Tulsa to defend it. In a written statement, the firm, Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis P.C. says the Oklahoma Department of Human Services has made significant improvements to its foster care system, and says federal oversight is unjustified. It says DHS will continue to improve the system without it.

CLICK HERE to read statement.

"It's always a defensive mode.  'We're doing this, we're doing that, we're preventing that.'  Instead of having an open ear and an open mind to possible changes to make their agency work better.  Typical bureaucracy," said state Rep. Richard Morrissette, (D) Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City legislator Richard Morrissette is an attorney who knows the system firsthand thanks to his practice.  He says DHS has become too big and powerful, and it's now time to break it up into smaller parts. 

"I just have a vision in my mind, and I'm not married to any particular plan.  What I am married to is this agency has to become accountable to the citizens of Oklahoma and particularly to people it serves," said Rep. Richard Morrissette. 

WATCH THE VIDEOMorrissette talks about why he is calling for an investigation into DHS.

In the meantime, former foster children like Sasha Gray worry about the children still in the system.  Children who don't, or can't, speak up for themselves. 

"As a foster child a lot of the times you just feel like you're by yourself.  You're in a room full of people, but you feel like you're by yourself," Sasha Gray said. 

Through an Open Records Request, the News On 6 has learned how much it will cost you, the taxpayer, to defend DHS against the lawsuit.  The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is paying the Tulsa law firm of Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis P.C. $200 an hour. 

DHS has set aside a total of $330,000 out of its operating budget for those fees over the next year and a half.  That is in spite of the fact that the Children's Rights group is not asking for any money in its lawsuit.