D.G. v. YARBROUGH, U.S. District Court Case No. 08-CV-074

The latest report issued on Thursday by experts charged with assessing whether the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is making “good faith” efforts to reform of the foster care system has found increased progress in many areas but that the state has not made good faith efforts in protecting children from abuse in foster homes.

Oklahoma’s foster care system has been under a court-ordered settlement agreement for more than four years, resulting from a federal court lawsuit. Three child welfare experts, called “co-neutrals,” are charged with assessing whether the state is making good faith efforts to achieve specific target outcomes detailed in the agreement. They issued their seventh report this week. Although the settlement agreement was originally intended to last for five years, the parties agreed in September to extend its terms.

For the most recent period, the experts report that the state made good faith efforts in 17 of the 21 target areas and, for the first time, achieved a “good faith” finding in increasing the number of new foster homes. The state has also continued to lower workers’ caseloads, has reduced the number of children placed in shelters and the time they spend there, and has continued to visit children in foster homes at a high rate. However, the experts also found that DHS has not taken necessary steps to protect children from being harmed in foster homes, to recruit enough new therapeutic foster homes, and achieve permanency for older youth.

With regard to the maltreatment issue, the report states “The rate of child maltreatment in care in Oklahoma continues to be unacceptably high.”

The report also contains findings from a separate expert review of maltreatment cases, noting:

  • Some homes have extensive records of prior multiple referrals that have been screened out, ruled out, or unsubstantiated. For some homes, the history of referrals reveals a pattern of concerning conditions that went unaddressed until the current substantiation.
  • The records raise concerns regarding the quality of caseworker visits. While DHS data reports indicate visits are typically occurring monthly, it appears that significant issues/concerns may be going undetected by workers during these visits.
  • The records present concerns regarding the decisions to approve a foster home/ foster parent, particularly given their child welfare or criminal history.

Under the terms of the agreement, the state must achieve a good faith finding in all of the 21 target areas, and maintain that standard for a continuous period of two years.

“While the state is to be commended for the progress it has made in many areas, the safety and protection of children is the state’s highest responsibility,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, director of A Better Childhood and counsel for the plaintiff children. “It is alarming that Oklahoma has not made good faith efforts to address this fundamental problem, and the findings of the review conducted by the experts raise serious questions about the foster homes the Department is licensing and supervising.”

Fred Dorwart, local counsel for plaintiffs, stated:

Organizationally, the state is improving, but the unacceptably high rate of maltreatment in care at the case level indicates that driving the cultural change down to where it counts most continues to be challenge.

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.

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