Oklahoma) DHS to settle suit over treatment of foster children

TULSA - A lawsuit filed against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services may not go to trial after all.

After meeting for five hours Tuesday night, DHS commissioners voted to settle a lawsuit over the treatment of foster children in its care.
If it's approved, there might not be a trial as scheduled this February.

A New York-based group called Children's Rights filed the lawsuit against DHS in 2008. It alleges the agency mistreated foster children in its care.

"This settlement is a real breakthrough. It will fundamentally change the way the state of Oklahoma performs its foster care services. It's very exciting," said Tulsa attorney Fred Dorwart, who helped negotiate the settlement. Details of the settlement have not yet been released.

"It's been a long hard, very hard piece of litigation. An enormous amount of time and effort got us to this point and time," Dorwart said.

In response, Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, issued the following statement:
"This is great news for the more than 8,000 abused and neglected children who are in foster care in Oklahoma. The vote shows that DHS commissioners are coming to grips with problems in the system and are taking first steps toward the wide-scale reform that Oklahoma's children so desperately need. We are grateful for the leadership that the Governor, Attorney General and the new members of the commission have demonstrated to move this agency in the right direction. We are hopeful that the state Contingency Review Board and the federal judge will also approve this landmark settlement."

DHS officials say they're "very pleased" with the proposed settlement. Director Howard Hendrick released this statement to 2News:

"Both sides were willing to entertain a new approach to resolving class action civil rights claims involving child welfare systems. The strength of our defense and the excellent work our child welfare workers do every day... changed the conversation about how these kinds of cases should be resolved. The future improvements, the details of which must yet be developed, are outlined in a framework that both sides hope will satisfy our shared desire to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families."

While negotiations took place, state lawmakers formed a task force to aggressively reform DHS.

"I think we're going to have a very robust discussion with the legislature this upcoming session, and i think that's where it should be. With the lawmakers, and not the courts," said state representative Pam Peterson. She says this move could kick-start reform.

"I'm looking forward to some significant changes hopefully that will be in the best interest of the people of Oklahoma," she said.

The settlement must be approved by the Contingency Review Board next week. If approved, the settlement becomes official, and the lawsuit will most likely not go to trial.