A Rogers County foster child is among nine children suing state officials, including Gov. Brad Henry and members of the Department of Human Services, for abuse, neglect and improper care while in state custody.

Claiming a drastic shortage of foster homes, overcrowded and dangerous emergency shelters, unsafe and inappropriate foster homes, excessive caseworker caseloads with inexperienced and unstable staff, and grossly inadequate payment for the care of foster children, the class action lawsuit, filed in federal court Wednesday, states Oklahoma’s foster care system has harmed foster children and exposed them to harm.

The children’s ages range from infants to 16 years old, and allege abuse, neglect and inadequate care while in DHS custody.

The system has reportedly failed a 4-year-old girl from Rogers County who has been in state custody since she was 2-years-old. Included in the lawsuit are claims that the girl was not properly monitored or supervised by DHS.

Since coming into state custody in 2006, the young girl has been in six different foster homes, including the home of a relative for seven months. That relative had been formerly accused of child abuse.

The facts listed in the lawsuit concerning the eight other foster children are similar as far as poor supervision is concerned. But some are far worse as far as abuse and neglect is concerning, the suit claims.

Skull fractures, physical and sexual abuse are listed as some of the results of the allegations made against the state officials in the class action lawsuit.

These problems claimed by the plaintiffs have allegedly been ongoing since 1997.

In 1997, a report was issued by the Oklahoma House of Representatives Human Services Committee based on an “in-depth study of the foster care system in which every foster care home in the state was visited.” The report, titled “Interim Study of the Foster Care System Throughout Oklahoma,” described several emerging problems with DHS that were causing harm to children. A shortage of foster homes and a lack of support for foster parents was identified as one of the problems.

A restructuring of DHS to create a direct link among DHS, policy makers and field personnel was recommended to “adequately service the foster care program. In addition, the report recommended DHS hire more caseworkers. The lawsuit claims that “in the 10 years since that report, DHS has failed to correct any of the deficiencies identified in the report.”

In order to operate the state’s child welfare system, it receives federal funding and is subject to periodic Child and Family Service Reviews conducted by the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. These reviews ensure states conform to federal child welfare benchmarks in the areas of child safety, permanency and well-being, according to the lawsuit.

Oklahoma’s initial review was completed in 2002 and in most areas, Oklahoma failed to meet the federal standards. All seven of the safety, permanency and well-being outcomes the state failed, which included “protecting children from abuse and neglect; safely maintaining children at home when possible and appropriate; providing permanency and stability in children’s living situations; preserving continuity of family relationships and connections; enhancing families’ capacity to provide for children’s needs; ensuring that children receive services to meet their educational needs; and ensuring that children receive services to meet their physical and mental health needs,” the lawsuit states.

A high volume of staff turnover is what the 2002 report stated was what caused the failure to ensure children in foster care “are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect.”

Another federal review was conducted in August, and the results have not been released publicly yet. However, in its own Child and Family Service Review statewide assessment, DHS revealed it is continuing in its failure to protect children. Foster children abuse or neglect frequency by foster parents or residential facility staff was reported at 1.2 percent during a 12-month period ending March 31, 2006. The lawsuit claims that is almost four times the maximum federal benchmark of .32 percent.

Claims related to the treatment and care, as well as alleged abuse and neglect, of foster children in the custody of Oklahoma DHS include the agency’s failure to provide safe and adequate living arrangements. Some of the abuse listed that allegedly occurred includes reports of physical abuse, sexual abuse or extreme neglect at the hands of foster parents or facility staff providing direct care for the foster children.

From July 1, 2004, to March 31, 2006, more than 1,700 foster children in Oklahoma were victims of confirmed abuse or neglect by foster parents, facility staff or their biological parents while in DHS custody, the lawsuit claims.

In speaking of placement of foster children, the lawsuit states, “the severe shortage of foster care placements strains the DHS placement system, leading to placement matches driven solely by the immediate availability of a bed rather than a child’s individual needs … resulting in the frequent ‘disruption’ of foster homes and the movement of foster children from one placement to another.” This includes emergency shelters which the lawsuit claims are “poorly monitored and grossly inappropriate” for small children.

Some foster children are routinely placed in an emergency shelter, “often far from their home community — as their first placement, according to the suit.

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