Thursday, October 27, 2011

Oklahoma - DHS finds funding for benefits, legal defense

By GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY - About $10 million in one-time funding has been found in the budget for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services to avoid cutting benefits in two low-income programs and to add $1 million to defend a class-action lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the commission overseeing the agency approved the expenditures, which include avoiding proposed hikes in child-care subsidy co-payments and avoiding lowering monthly assistance to a program for families with developmentally disabled children.

Commissioners also voted to use the money toward the class-action lawsuit filed by New York-based Children's Rights alleging abuse in the foster care system. Trial is set for February in the U.S. Northern District Court in Tulsa.

This brings the total cost of litigation to at least $9 million for private attorneys - $6 million already spent and $2 million previously planned for next year.

DHS Director Howard Hendrick said the funds are from amounts carried over from previous years. He said a new process allows officials to identify carryover funds earlier.

Hendrick said without new funding in the 2013 budget, these cuts may still need to be made.

"We would have found it eventually in January, February or March," Hendrick said. "We have a lot of one-time funds paying for recurring costs, and that's the biggest pause I have about the recommendation. But it's the right thing to do to push on through."

During discussion, Commissioner Jay Dee Chase cut off Commissioner Steven Dow from asking questions and called for a vote on the changes and monthly financial report, which had not been presented.

Procedure allows for further discussion and Dow asked for a "friendly amendment" for a separate vote on the service programs and legal fees.

"I don't accept that," Chase said. "My motion is made and seconded and I don't want to change it."

Dow said he wanted to explore if the $1 million could be used toward increasing foster-care subsidies or in the field offices.

"I'd like to have a conversation and discussion on where else we could spend $1 million before it goes to litigation costs," Dow said.

Commissioner Brad Yarbrough asked Chase to amend the motion so the board could hear the monthly financial report before making an approval.

Commissioners passed the changes by a 7-1 vote, with Dow dissenting.

The meeting ended with a vote to settle a 2007 lawsuit filed by a former foster child, who was subjected to "horrific acts of sexual abuse" by his foster father and his live-in boyfriend.

DHS commissioners and agency attorney Charles Waters refused to state the amount of the settlement or how it is being paid.

Terms were discussed in executive session, and the 7-1 approval was taken in open session.

According to the Oklahoman, the commissioners voted to pay a share of the $1.1 million settlement. The attorneys blacked out the settlement amount in the court papers, but The Oklahoman was able to calculate the amount of the overall settlement because attorneys asked for $308.90 in daily interest until it is paid.

Dow was the lone vote against the settlement and said he has not seen a proposed settlement agreement document.

"I personally did not feel I had enough advance knowledge or notice to make an informed decision," Dow said. "I was uncomfortable being brought in at the last minute."

The victim was a 15-year-old boy in Cleveland County who was placed in the home of Paul Stephen Hull in December 2005, the court records state. Shadow Mountain Behavioral Health System was named in the lawsuit as a contractor with DHS and had a hand in the boy's foster placement.

Hull's live-in lover, Erwin Charles Swender, started molesting the victim, and Hull joined in after the third or fourth assault, records state.

Swender had spent time in an Iowa juvenile facility as a 16-year-old after causing the death of a 22-month-old by hitting the toddler three to four times, according to court records and Iowa media reports.

He had a history with DHS, resulting in the termination of his parental rights to at least seven of his children.

DHS removed him for a few days in February 2006 because of concerns about conditions there. He was returned to the home after Hull agreed to a safety plan, which included keeping Swender away.

The lawsuit alleges Hull ignored the plan, with Swender continuing to live in the home and the two continuing to abuse the boy. DHS removed him for good when he finally told a counselor about the abuse.

The victim said he was abused for several weeks and was exposed to drugs and pornography.

Hull - a former teacher at Oklahoma City's Capitol Hill High School - pleaded guilty in 2007 to attempted rape, forcible sodomy, second-degree rape, lewd molestation and meth possession. He agreed to eight years in prison and to testify against Swender.

Swender pleaded guilty as jury selection began in 2007 to lewd acts with a child, forcible sodomy and meth possession. He was sentenced to 20 years.

The lawsuit alleges DHS left the victim in the home despite suspicions that Hull was ignoring the safety plan.

Since 2005, DHS has paid at least $3.4 million to settle child-welfare lawsuits, according to a Tulsa World investigation. That is in addition to the defense of the class-action lawsuit.


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