Oklahoma DHS plaintiffs swell to 11,000
Foster-child caseloads draw judge’s scrutiny as class-action status is granted
GINNIE GRAHAM / Tulsa World
May 6, 2009
TULSA — Citing questions about caseload limitations and safety of foster children, a federal judge Tuesday approved class-action designation for a lawsuit that alleges mistreatment of children in state custody.
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Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group, has led the lawsuit against several officials at the state Department of Human Services.
The lawsuit was filed in February 2008 on behalf of nine children, and now represents a class of about 11,000 after Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell.
"We will be able to gather facts on the system to plan for reform,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, attorney and executive director of Children’s Rights.
The lawsuit alleges physical and sexual abuse suffered by the foster children was caused by deficiencies in the state’s foster-care system.
"Those nine kids had a tough time but are not representative of the whole 10,000 children in care,” said attorney Bob Nance, who represents DHS. "Those cases do not represent the department and staff, but the judge disagrees.”
In arguing for class-action status, attorneys for the children outlined possible solutions to satisfy two rules. The recommendations could be not broaden or inflate the issues of the named children to fit the larger group.
A Feb. 13 filing included the suggestions of lowering workers’ case totals, which attorneys say are about 50 per worker, and monitoring safety through home visits. Other recommendations included providing training for workers, foster and adoptive parents; requiring assessments for placements; and measuring outcomes.
In the hearing, Frizzell spent most of the time asking about caseloads.
Frizzell mentioned a federal lawsuit where the grandfather of 2-year-old Keenan Taylor, who died June 9, 2005, received a settlement of $160,000 last year. Keenan was in DHS custody and placed in the care of his father, Carlis Anthony Ball, who scalded him on more than 50 percent of his body. Ball is serving a sentence of life without parole.
Frizzell approved the settlement and said DHS caseworkers admitted falsifying documents that they were making regular visits to see Keenan.
"Part of their explanation was having a high caseload,” Frizzell said. "They simply couldn’t get out there.”
Nance argued against the class-action status.