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Tentative DHS lawsuit settlement prepared, details undisclosed

By Patrick B McGuigan

Executive Editor

At the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, the Contingency Review Board (CRB) last week approved an amended settlement agreement in a long-running lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS). The board consists of Governor Mary Fallin, President Pro Temp Brian Bingman of Sapulpa and House Speaker Kris Steele of Shawnee.

This week, DHS commission and other parties to the litigation must accept the amended settlement before it is binding. The draft accord had passed one round of review by several parties, including the “Children’s Rights” group that has led the litigious attack on the troubled agency, in the case DG vs. Yarborough. A preliminary court date for the suit is set for this Friday, Jan. 6. The draft settlement is also subject to judicial review.

The Children’s Rights organization, based in New York, has contended DHS inadequately monitors foster children, putting them at risk. The agency has faced criticism for its handling of child protective services. The commission that governs the agency faced increasing critical scrutiny for inattentiveness to the litigation and for open meetings’ violations.

Oklahoma City attorney Jerry Fent, a perennial and often effective critic of government practices, is challenging legitimacy of the CRB’s involvement.

Speaker Steele has been a critic of the agency and an advocate of significant changes in the agency’s performance and practices. Senate President Pro Tem Bingman, in a statement sent to The City Sentinel, commented, “There is no obligation we ought to take more seriously than the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us – particularly children in heartbreaking situations beyond their control.”

After the CRB’s executive session lasting a bit more than one hour, the board returned to open session. At that point, Bingman moved, and Steele seconded, approval of the settlement, as amended. The motion carried 3-0 and the panel then adjourned.

Gov. Fallin told reporters that while the accord is subject to consent from parties in the litigation, she regards the draft accord as “a positive step.” She reflected, “All parties have negotiated in good faith.” Concerning validity of CRB actions, Fallin said state officials “don’t believe [Fent’s] analysis is correct.” Fallin has been carefully critical of DHS’ performance since assuming office last January, and has appointed two commissioners, including Chairman Brad Yarborough.

Fent’s past challenges to the CRB’s practices have been successful in at least two cases. Further, state Rep. Mike Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, argues the panel improperly mixes executive and legislative powers. However, defenders of the CRB note the fact situation in the current DHS settlement agreement is different and, in legal parlance, “distinguishable” from other cases.

Discussing the possible settlement, Sheree Powell, communications coordinator at DHS, predicted a positive and “very unusual” resolution, although she declined to provide any details. In response to questions from CapitolBeatOK, she said she has not seen the revised draft amendment.

Powell said, “There is no perfect child welfare system.” She echoed frequently reported views of DHS Director Howard Hendrick, that DHS staff needs to be paid more and caseworkers need smaller caseloads, and higher pay for foster parents and therapeutic homes.

In December’s regular meeting of the commission, Hendrick said the Legislature should approve pay raises, and reduce employee contributions to the retirement system. Hendrick told reporters he estimated the agency has spent $7 million defending its practices in the litigation. Costs include attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees and other expenses. The pay hike advocacy and call to divert pension deposits to help finance salaries has drawn critical reaction from some legislators.

Linda Terrell of the Oklahoma Institute for Child advocacy said her group was “optimistic” at news of draft settlement, saying “significant reform” and possible privatization of “certain pieces of foster care,” combined with “wise investment of taxpayer dollars,” could improve performance at the agency.

In a statement sent to The City Sentinel, Terrell also took a shot at proposals to reduce state income tax rates, saying she opposed “cutting taxes for the wealthiest among us” at the expense of “vulnerable children.”

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