DHS paid $3.4 million since 2005 to settle child abuse lawsuits
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2011
9/18/11 at 7:53 AM
More than $3.4 million in civil lawsuit settlements for child deaths and neglect have been made since 2005 with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, according to records obtained by the Tulsa World.
The 24 payouts range from $15,000 to settle civil rights violations of parents after DHS placed their children into emergency custody to a $700,000 payout in the death of a toddler at a Tulsa child-care home, records show.
Of the settlements, DHS paid about $1.4 million from its budget while insurance entities paid about $2 million. The agency has a self-insured liability fund with AIG/Chartis and the Department of Central Services Risk Management Division.
"The fiscal cost of failures in the child welfare system pales in comparison to the cost Oklahoma's most vulnerable children paid as a result of those failures," stated House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, in an email to the World.
"Facts and figures like these clearly indicate a need to pursue serious policy changes at DHS. The status quo at DHS must improve and the Legislature is committed to seeing that it does."
Oklahoma ranks fifth in the nation in the rate of child abuse and neglect deaths, with 3.4 child deaths per 100,000, according to the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Death. This is a slight improvement from 2001, when the state ranked third in the country with a rate of 3.7.
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said lawsuit settlements are approved based on the type of case. She said the litigation is used to change policy and practices.
"They work closely with the relevant agency divisions to propose statutory or policy changes or training requirements as necessary," Powell stated in an email.
"Our attorneys also participate in various training courses for DHS employees in which we use information developed in litigation as very good teaching points for our new social workers in an effort to avoid recurrences of similar issues in the future."
DHS Commission Chairman Richard DeVaughn said the board votes in a public meeting after the legal department negotiates a settlement. He said all the cases are "serious."
"We as a commission aren't faced with (the lawsuits)," DeVaughn said. "When someone sues the agency, legal takes over. It's investigated and defended to the end. If at the end, a settlement is warranted, we vote on that. But there are thousands that aren't. From a cost-benefit analysis that is a win for the agency."
The DHS commission, which oversees the agency, has been criticized by state leaders who say the board members have failed to scrutinize child abuse cases and other agency operations.
The settlements are in addition to the more than $4.2 million DHS has spent in outside legal counsel to defend the class-action lawsuit alleging abuses in the foster-care system. That federal trial is set for Feb. 1.
In depositions for the federal class-action lawsuit, several commission members said they had not read the lawsuit complaint or an audit last year that pointed to deficiencies in the system.
Gov. Mary Fallin recently said there is an "appearance of a lax of oversight" by the commission and she appointed two new members - Wes Lane, who served five years as Oklahoma County's district attorney, and Brad Yarbrough, an Oklahoma City businessman. Yarbrough will become the chairman in October.
Also, the agency has an internal team of 14 attorneys - at an annual cost of about $1.1 million in salaries - to handle a variety of legal issues. Two of those lawyers are dedicated solely to child welfare cases.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been critical of the amount of legal costs agencies incur. He has supported legislation to require more reporting and approval of such expenditures.
"It is a top priority to restore the office of Attorney General to the strength where usage of private attorneys by state agencies is the exception and not the rule," Pruitt stated in an email.
"It is critical that we fulfill our duty regarding the usage and approval of private attorneys in order to hold agencies accountable, reduce the millions in taxpayer resources being spent on outside counsel and to ensure the state's interests are being properly served."
DHS officials have previously defended the costs for outside counsel on the class-action suit, claiming a consent decree would be more expensive to the state.
The lead firm on the case - Tulsa-based Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison and Lewis - was chosen by DHS Director Howard Hendrick without a competitive bidding process or public discussion, or vote of the DHS commission, which oversees the agency.
Powell said Oklahoma law allows Hendrick to enter into contracts for professional services and does not require a commission vote.
"The bottom line is that professional services contracts are expressly exempted under the Central Purchasing Act from competitive bidding," Powell stated. "There is no statutory, regulatory, or agency policy requirement that OKDHS's contracts for professional services must be approved by a vote of the commission."
Civil lawsuits settled by DHS involving child welfare
Federal court and district court records show the following lawsuits were settled in cases filed against DHS involving child abuse and neglect. Cases are listed by the fiscal year in which the settlement was paid.
Three children in Pryor were repeatedly abused by their mother and stepfather despite complaints from their father, Paul Blevins, Blevins claimed in a civil suit filed in 2004 in Mayes County. DHS settled for $300,000, to go to the children when they reach adulthood, according to the settlement. DHS paid $175,000 and insurance paid $125,000. Read the court documents in the case.
Aurora Espinal-Cruz, 7 months old, died in January 2002 in Tulsa, after being asphyxiated while unattended in a crib while at the home of foster parent Deanza Jones. The infant had insect bite marks on her body, court records show. No criminal charges were filed. A lawsuit was filed in Tulsa County District Court in October 2003. Jurors awarded $20 million in damages to be paid by Jones. DHS settled for $175,000, which was paid by insurance. Read the court documents in the case.
Brennan Lee Creason, 4 months old, died in April 2003 in Tulsa after a foster parent placed him in a bed with a bottle propped up so he could eat. The medical examiner could not determine the cause of death. A lawsuit filed in January 2005 in Tulsa County District Court alleged DHS failed to properly supervise, monitor and train the foster parent. DHS settled for $15,000, paid by its insurance. Read the court documents in the case.
Isaiah Ganis, 3, MaKayla Ganis, 2, and Christian Ganis, 1, died in August 2003 in an Ardmore house fire. Their 24-year-old mother was at a neighbor’s house and her new boyfriend was away from the home. The mother, Sarah L. Ganis, is serving a 40-year prison sentence for child neglect. Prior to their deaths, DHS had received complaints about their care from the children’s father, grandparents and child-care provider. DHS settled a lawsuit for $200,000, which was paid by its insurance.
Felipe Garcia died in May 2001 two days after the 3-year-old was found unresponsive in his Broken Arrow bedroom. The medical examiner found several bruises on the child and determined something caused his brain to swell, but could not determine a cause or manner of death. The boy’s foster father, Mark Anthony Gonzalez, was convicted in September 2004 of injury to a minor child and received a 30-day jail term. A lawsuit was filed in February 2003 in the U.S. Northern District was settled in August 2009 for $500,000. DHS paid half and insurance paid half. Read the court documents in the case.
Jordan Clemons, 9, was severely beaten by his father, Anthony Clemons, in March 2004 in Bartlesville. His father pleaded guilty in June 2004 and received a 10-year sentence - two in prison and the rest suspended with supervised probation. His mother, Wendy Clemons, lived in Alabama and had full custody of her son. She claims in a federal lawsuit filed in April 2007 that no one contacted her about the abuse or arrest and DHS awarded custody of Jordan to his stepmother. Clemons picked up her son, prompting DHS to contact police, who arrested her and placed Jordan in a series of foster placements, court records state. In December 2004, she regained custody and has since moved back to Alabama. A federal lawsuit was filed in April 2006, and DHS settled for $35,000, paid by its insurance. Read the court documents in the case.
Cary and Windy Rinehart claimed their civil rights were violated when their children were placed by DHS into emergency custody, according to a federal lawsuit filed in December 2005. DHS settled for $16,182.51 - insurance paid $15,000 and DHS paid the remainder. Read the court documents in the case.
Keenan Taylor, 2, died in June 2005, after DHS placed him in the custody of his father, Carlis Anthony Ball, who scalded him on more than 50 percent of his body. Ball is serving a sentence of life without parole. Keenan’s grandfather, Archie James Taylor, received a settlement from a federal lawsuit for $160,000 - $130,000 paid by insurance and $30,000 paid by DHS. Read the court documents in the case.
A Jackson County resident, Wayne Bullington, claimed his civil rights were violated involving DHS custody of his child. DHS settled for $65,000, with DHS paying $25,000 and insurance paying the rest.
A child was sexually molested in December 2006 at the Purcell Dragon’s Den Childcare and Preschool, and at least four other children were also alleged victims of molestation by an employee, the lawsuit stated. Parents were informed by the district attorney’s office that charges would not be filed due to “poor interviews of the abused children by DHS,” the lawsuit states. The agency agreed to settle for $12,500, paid by insurance. Read the court documents in the case.
A second parent with a child allegedly molested at the Purcell child-care center settled with DHS for $12,500, paid by insurance.
James W. Greer Jr. and his wife Candance R. Greer sued DHS in federal court in March 2008 for violating their civil rights by placing their children into emergency custody. DHS settled for $20,000. Read the court documents in the case.
Kelsey Smith-Briggs, 2, died in Meeker in October 2005 from broken bones and several other injuries. Her case became highly publicized leading to calls for more transparency in DHS child abuse cases and changes in the child welfare system. Her stepfather, Michael Lee Porter, pleaded guilty to enabling child abuse and received a 30-year prison sentence. Her mother, Raye Dawn Smith, was convicted in a 2007 trial for enabling child abuse and is serving a 27-year sentence. The two blame each other for Kelsey’s death. DHS settled for $525,000, with insurance paying $375,000 and the agency paying the rest. Read the court documents in the case.
Renee Dawn Robbins, 7 months old, died in October 2003 from blunt trauma to the head while at a Tahlequah child-care home licensed by DHS. A first-degree murder charge against operator Carla Beth McKinney was dismissed in October 2006, after prosecutors cited problems with the evidence. A federal lawsuit was filed in September 2006 and settled in October 2009 for $140,000. DHS paid $110,000 and insurance paid the rest. Read the court documents in the case.
A second lawsuit involving three children in Pryor abused by their mother and stepfather was filed in Mayes County by their father, Paul Blevins. It stems from DHS failing to remove the children from the home. Terms of the settlement were ordered sealed by the court. Insurance paid the settlement.
JaJuan Flowers, 4, died in December 2006 from blunt force trauma to the head after DHS placed him and his half sister in the home of Maria Torres-Vasquez and her husband, Beltan Vasquez. Arkansas child welfare officials strongly recommended against the placement after a home study done at the request of DHS. Torres-Vasquez is serving a 10-year sentence in Arkansas for causing the death. The couple had prior allegations of abuse and seven other children in the home. DHS settled a federal lawsuit for $250,000 - the agency paid $175,000 and insurance paid the rest. Read the court documents in the case.
Joshua Minton, 2, died in May 2007 after his Tulsa child-care worker taped his mouth shut and bound his hands because he was making noise during nap time. Vicki Chiles, was convicted of first-degree murder in Joshua’s death and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. DHS settled for $700,000 - the agency paying $150,000 and insurance paying the rest. Read the court documents in the case.
According to news reports, Raymond Palmer, 19 months old, died in June 2008 while in the custody of foster parents Dale and Darla Owen. The toddler was run over by a pickup in a pasture near Ardmore during a party at the residence, according to a lawsuit filed in May 2009 in Oklahoma County. The foster parents had been drinking beer while watching children swim in a pond, reports state. Two weeks before, a Chickasaw Nation child welfare worker visited the home and found no adults supervising the foster chidren. The boy and his sister were among seven foster children in the home. DHS settled for $100,000, paid by its insurance.
Two teens living in a Pittsburg County independent living program were alleged to have been sexually assaulted by Rocky Wade Johnson, the coordinator of that DHS program, according to a federal lawsuit filed in September 2010. Johnson pleaded guilty to child abuse in April and was given a 10-year suspended sentence. The lawsuit alleges some DHS supervisors knew of previous complaints about sexual abuse by Johnson. DHS settled for $25,000, paid by its insurance, for each of the victims. Read the court documents in the case. Part 1 / Part 2
Carla Legates of Rogers County alleged that DHS violated her civil rights when taking her children into emergency custody in 2007 and 2008. DHS settled for $40,000, paid by the agency. Read the court documents in the case.
Related to the Legates case, Ray Woodson of Rogers County alleged DHS violated his civil rights when placing his children into emergency custody. DHS settled for $40,000, paid by the agency. Read the court documents in the case.
A federal lawsuit filed by Bryan Hedges accused DHS of civil rights violations by placing his child into protective custody in 2009. DHS settled for $15,000, paid by the agency. Read the court documents in the case.
2012 (fiscal year)
Tulsa resident Wendell and Shauntae Allen alleged their five children were negligently placed into foster care by DHS and subjected to abuse while in care, according to a Tulsa County lawsuit filed in July 2010. Allegations include not providing children with adequate clothing, medical care and transportation to school. It alleged punishment including “placing them in rooms for days without windows and providing them only a blanket and pillow.” DHS settled the case for $15,000, which was paid by insurance. Read the court documents in the case.
Original Print Headline: DHS settlements cost $3.4 M
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376