Lawsuit Against DHS Could Lead To Reform

Friday, February 15th 2008, 10:25 pm
By: News On 6

The state agency that's supposed to protect kids is accused of dropping the ball.  The watchdog group behind the class action lawsuit against Oklahoma's Department of Human Services says suing does lead to reform.  The group called "Children's Rights" says it's settled with seven other states that have launched sweeping changes.

The News On 6's Ashli Sims reports Children's Rights says Oklahoma's DHS is broken.  If they prove their case, what goes on behind the agency's walls could be in for some big changes.

Children's Rights, says the system isn't working for thousands of kids in state custody.  The group has filed federal lawsuits against 10 states including Oklahoma, settling with seven of them.

Children's Rights say the states aren't perfect post-lawsuit, but sweeping changes have been made.

Tennessee settled its lawsuit in July of 2001.  Before then, many of children in Tennessee state custody ended up in institutions not families.

Now 90% are with families and the number of kids in institutions was cut by more than 60%.

Children's Rights criticized Oklahoma's DHS for excessive caseloads and high turnover.

"It's a matter of funding.  We have challenging situations.  We say we always need additional foster care.  We always need additional social workers.  The case loads, yes the case loads are high," said DHS Spokesman George Johnson

Tennessee had similar problems.  In 2001, case workers were charged with 40 or more children.  Now that's been cut in half with 90% of case workers having 20 children or fewer.

The state has also launched a major push to find Tennessee children permanent homes.  This year, adoptions were at the highest level ever with more than 1,200 kids adopted.  That's way up from only about 200, ten years ago.

A spokesperson from Tennessee's Department of Children Services says in response to the lawsuit the state raised case worker salaries by almost 30%.  And it's paid off with a decrease in turnover.

"We're here saying it's not perfect. But is it much, much better yes and are we on the right road absolutely," said TN Child Services Attorney Stacy Miller.

Despite the changes, the agency is still under fire for not reporting abuse.

"It doesn't even make sense to me with all of the children we're burying," said Tennessee State Senator Ophelia Ford.

It's hard to say how much all of these changes cost the state of Tennessee.  If you look at their 2008-2009 state budget, the lawsuit has made child welfare issues a priority.  And many line items refer to the settlement as justification for dollars spent.