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Lawsuit over foster care liable to be long, costly


Published Jan 16, 2009 / The Oklahoman Editorial

In the news again is a lawsuit filed by a national child advocacy group against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Children’s Rights, Inc., wants changes made at the agency in order to better protect children in foster care.

A federal judge in Tulsa has set a March deadline for the group to present proposed fixes. Its executive director says areas of concern include the high number of caseloads handled by each child welfare worker and the high turnover rate among caseworkers.

The lawsuit was filed last February, which means that in March, when the next step is completed, the suit will be 13 months along. And it’s sure to drag on for a good long while after that. Why should Oklahoma be different than other states where Children’s Rights has sued?

Take Georgia, for example. In July, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld more than $10.5 million in fees for the plaintiffs lawyers, according to law.com. The lawsuit had been filed six years earlier. A consent decree was reached in 2005, although it left the attorneys fee question unanswered.

Plaintiffs attorneys asked for more than $16 million in fees and expenses. They figured attorneys and paralegals had spent 30,000 hours on the case, at rates ranging from $75 to $495 per hour. That totals just more than $7 million, but they asked the judge for about double that due to a number of factors including the complex nature of the case.

A lower court judge awarded the attorneys $10.5 million, which was upheld last summer by the appeals court although one of the judges was less than thrilled about it.

Judge Edward E. Carnes quoted John D. Rockefeller, who reportedly once said "just a little bit more” money would be enough for him. "The attorneys for the plaintiff class in this case want more than just a little bit more,” Carnes wrote. "They want a lot more money than they would receive from multiplying the number of hours they worked on this case by the hourly rate they charge.”

But they got it nonetheless. DHS Director Howard Hendrick told us recently his chief concern is that an extended, highly publicized lawsuit could affect staff morale, thus leading to more turnover and more kids being placed in harm’s way. And of course, there’s the potential monetary cost to the state.

Carnes touched on that in the Georgia case.

"The perverse irony of the seven-figure, court-ordered gratuity in this case,” he wrote, "is that it reduces the amount of state funds available to care for what Children’s Rights itself has described as some of Georgia’s ‘most vulnerable citizens.’” Perverse indeed.

Published: January 16, 2009
2009 Jan 16