Lawsuit against DHS seeks changes

Wednesday, February 13th 2008, 1:37 pm
By: News 9

By Amy Lester, NEWS 9

A controversial state agency is at the center of a federal class action lawsuit. The lawsuit accuses the Department of Human Services of failing to protect kids in our state from abuse.

Children's Rights filed the lawsuit. The child welfare reform group has filed lawsuits in 10 different states including Connecticut, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee, Washington DC, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Michigan and Oklahoma.

The lawsuit accuses DHS of exposing kids to severe abuse and neglect by placing them in unsafe or unstable foster homes. It calls for a complete reform of the child welfare system.

The allegations of harm, abuse, neglect are all outlined in a nearly 90 page lawsuit, the result of an eight month investigation from Children's Rights.

"The fact that the state is taking children into protection, into its protection and then not even protecting them but putting them in circumstances where they're being harmed further is really pretty shocking," said Executive Director of Children's Rights, Marcia Robinson Lowry.

The lawsuit states for the past five years, Oklahoma has been among the worst three states in the nation in its rate of "abuse in care" of foster children. That means kids continue to face abuse in foster homes.

Anne Sublett is a lawyer speaking out for one of the nine foster children named in the lawsuit. The lawsuit claims the children experience abuse, bounce around between many placements, or stay for months in overcrowded shelters.

"There are examples of children who are beaten in foster care, who are molested in foster care and these are the kinds of things that don't have to happen," Sublett said.

The lawsuit calls for more foster homes, more case workers, more oversight and less of a reliance on overcrowded shelters.

"When they have to make a case about what we're doing, they have to pick out worse case scenarios they aren't going to pick what averages are or best case scenarios are," Sublett said.

DHS spokesman George Johnson said the agency's reviewing the lawsuit to determine if it's accurate.

"Even with this lawsuit, we knew already there were improvements that can be made, but it takes time and money and human resources and capital to take care of," Johnson said.

The goal is a complete top to bottom reform of DHS.  If the state settles before trial, the advocates will create a reform plan, and the court will make sure DHS follows it. 

Governor Henry is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. He does not comment on pending litigation.To view the full lawsuit, click here.