March 5, 2012; Source: Tulsa World
A case brought by Children’s Rights, a New York-based nonprofit, in Tulsa, Okla., against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) has ended in a settlement that was recently approved by a federal judge. Data from the Oklahoma case shows that its social workers had caseloads that were too high to effectively handle, foster children with multiple placements, shelters routinely topping capacity and a deficiency in supervision and training for foster parents.
DHS spent $7 million to defend the case brought against them and has approved another $2 million for legal costs. The settlement includes the creation of a three-person panel that will approve a plan for 15 areas targeted for improvement. Since the filing of the lawsuit, Tulsa’s DHS has reduced the number of children in foster care from about 11,000 to 8,000.
Children’s Rights has raised legal challenges in at least 15 states and jurisdictions since 1995 to seek improvements in child welfare systems; only two haven’t ended in settlement agreements or judicial consent orders.
Most see the nonprofit’s work as a way to reform child welfare on a national level. However, critics question the motive of the nonprofit, wondering if their work is to seek a payout or to unjustly impose its values.
In response to such critics, Marcia Lowry, Children’s Rights founder and executive director, asks, “What’s so bad about trying to reform child welfare nationally? Yes, we are trying to do that because hundreds of thousands of children are suffering.”
According to its 2010 tax records, the nonprofit has net assets of about $14 million. Lowry indicates that that the organization operates on a tight margin, with salaries comparable to those of paid public interest lawyers, devoid of bonuses for cases won.
“Problems in child welfare are national problems. It’s not a boilerplate,” says Lowry. “There are some very serious national problems that play themselves out with local variations. They are common problems but are not exactly the same.”
Citing the need for Children’s Rights, Lowry points to the lack of specialized expertise and resources to handle federal class-action cases like this one. She says, “A lawsuit is a massive undertaking. It requires a huge amount of resources, an enormous amount of lawyer hours and a lot of cash. You can’t do a case like this without experts, and experts cost a lot of money. There are not a lot of commercial law firms prepared to take on that kind of commitment.”
The work of Children’s Rights points to an increasing need to monitor the safety of children even within a welfare system. The very structure that is setup to protect the children could be the same system that is harming them, as is shown by the work of nonprofits such as Children’s Rights. –Saras Chung