NEUTRAL EXPERTS FIND STATE STILL FALLS SHORT IN ACHIEVING NECESSARY REFORM OF OKLAHOMA’S FOSTER-CARE SYSTEM
Most recent findings make it likely that the court-ordered settlement will be extended at least another year.
D.G. v. Yarbrough, Case No. 08-cv-074-GKF, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma
Almost four years into an intended five-year period to implement the State of Oklahoma’s court-ordered foster-care reform plan, the national experts charged with monitoring the state’s progress have found the state stills falls short in making necessary progress in key areas.
Under the court-approved settlement entered in January, 2012, the three-child welfare experts, called “Co-Neutrals,” have the responsibility for approving the state’s strategies for addressing necessary reforms in seven key performance areas affecting the well-being of Oklahoma children in foster care and to determine whether the state is making good-faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress toward each of the Target Outcomes set by the experts. The Co-Neutrals issue periodic reports on the state’s progress. The settlement governing the state’s obligations was negotiated as the result of a federal civil-rights lawsuit, D.G. v. Yarbrough, charging the state with violating the constitutional rights of foster children in Oklahoma’s foster-care system.
In the latest report, called a Commentary and issued by the expert group on Oct. 14th, the experts found that although some aspects of the system have improved, notably worker caseloads and the state’s plan to close the two public shelters, many others had not, despite the more than three years the state has had to develop and implement strategies necessary to protect children.
The experts found the state has failed to make good-faith efforts in:
- Lowering the rate at which children are maltreated;
- Developing desperately needed therapeutic foster homes;
- Lowering the number of older children housed in shelters; and
- Placing foster children in permanent homes.
Under the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the state is required to have made good-faith efforts to meet the targets set by the experts and maintain those targets for at least two years prior to December 15, 2016. If the state fails to do so, the Settlement Agreement is extended.
“With the Co-Neutrals’ most recent finding, it appears that the state cannot meet the terms of the two-year maintenance test in the Settlement Agreement by the 2016 target date and that the Settlement Agreement will be extended for at least another year beyond 2016,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of A Better Childhood, the nonprofit advocacy group which represents the plaintiff children, along with cocounsel Fred Dorwart, of the Tulsa law firm of Frederic Dorwart Lawyers.
“We hope that the state will use this extra time to rethink the strategies that have not been working so far, to develop a real sense of urgency to provide adequate protection for these children, examine where its management efforts continue to fail, and to build a durable child-welfare system that will provide these vulnerable children with what Oklahoma has denied them for far too long. Though the state has failed the two-year requirement to exit the Settlement Agreement, the reduction of worker caseloads is positive, and it is our hope similar progress can be achieved in other key areas,” said Fred Dorwart. “Until that happens, our foster kids remain at risk.”
Also pending before the Co-Neutrals is the plaintiffs’ request for the Co-Neutrals to exercise their authority under the Settlement Agreement and direct the state to take specific actions to speed up implementation of the reforms in which the Co-Neutrals have found lack of good-faith efforts. That matter is currently under consideration by the Co-Neutrals.
A Better Childhood is a national nonprofit advocacy organization that uses the courts to reform dysfunctional child welfare systems around the country. Marcia Robinson Lowry, A Better Childhood’s executive director, has been lead counsel in the D.G. v. Yarbrough lawsuit since the case was filed in 2008.