Court criticizes DHS for delay in reports
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
5/24/12 at 3:39 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma Department of Human Services could face court sanctions if officials do not change how the agency communicates information to judges, according to a ruling by the Court of Civil Appeals.
Appellate Judge Tom Thornbrugh took the extra step of calling for sanctions now.
The words of warning come in a ruling published this week in the Oklahoma Bar Journal involving an Oklahoma City foster couple, Greg and Deborah Saul, who filed an appeal in July 2009 to keep children from being reunited with a sibling.
In 2010, the case became complicated after Greg Saul, 64, was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl living in the home.
This year, on Feb. 23, he was charged in Cleveland County District Court with nine crimes, including rape, oral sodomy and indecent exposure with a 14-year-old girl.
Neither victim was a foster child.
After the Sauls filed the initial appeal, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay in December 2009 until the state civil appellate court made a ruling.
DHS removed the children four months later after the allegation was made that Greg Saul was having sex with the 16-year-old girl. The agency also closed the home as a foster placement.
However, DHS did not inform the court of its actions, keeping the appeal alive.
The Court of Civil Appeals ruling supports the agency's response in keeping the children safe and closing the home.
"Nevertheless we note DHS failed to notify the Court that an emergency had occurred and that it was acting in contravention to the stay," the ruling states. "Such action is unacceptable.
"DHS's failure to notify the Court of its actions until required to do so by show cause order resulted in this Court's expenditure of unnecessary and wasted resources and a delay in resolving the appeal. In the future, such impermissible conduct by DHS will result in sanctions."
Thornbrugh agreed but wrote a separate opinion, "to emphasize that DHS's actions in this case were indefensible and warrant sanctions. I would impose sanctions on DHS at this time."
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said the agency acted appropriately.
"We made the right decision by removing the children and keeping them safe," Powell said. "We just called it early."
Powell said the current reforms of DHS include getting information out efficiently to key players.
"Overall, communication is part of our improvement plan of child welfare - making sure judges and district attorneys are fully informed," Powell said. "We want to improve communication to all parties involved."
The three children were removed from their mother in September 2008 after a baby tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine.
The two younger children were placed with the Sauls as a kinship foster home, based on the couple's relationship with the paternal grandparents of one of the children, the ruling states.
The Sauls opted not to take in the older child, Powell said.
The oldest child had several placements before finding a stable home with a woman, Shannon Becktold, whose father had dated the children's grandmother.
To reunite the siblings, DHS ordered the two youngest children be moved in with Becktold. The Sauls filed an objection in Oklahoma County District Court.
The court denied the objection, stating the "kids need to be together" and that the "most fragile" of the siblings is the older child, requiring that they live in the Becktold home.
The Sauls appealed that ruling, leading to the state Supreme Court to stay any action.
After the children were removed from the Sauls in April 2010 due to sexual abuse allegations, DHS concluded its investigation and found no abuse to the foster children.
But the foster home was closed because officials said Deborah Saul did not report the allegation as required by law. Officials claim she hid the allegation from DHS. She appealed the decision.
After four days of an administrative hearing, an order affirmed DHS's decision last June.
"Ms. Saul's failure to report the suspected sexual intercourse in her home between her husband and 16-year-old (girl) is an inexcusable breach of contract," the order states. "It indicates Ms. Saul placed her own need to be a foster parent above the needs of her foster children."
The 14-year-old victim in the criminal case against Greg Saul was a student at Moore Christian School, where Saul taught science. Court records indicate that the sexual relationship began in August, and he promised to marry her and move to Mexico.
In October, the state Court of Civil Appeals issued an order directing parties to update the status of events in the case. It was the second such order, with the first one issued in December 2010.
The court's ruling was released Nov. 8 and was published in the journal May 12.
Foster care records sought
Television station KOKI-Channel 23 sued DHS in October 2006, and the Tulsa World joined the lawsuit in August 2007. The suit requests the names and dates of birth of foster parents so reporters can check public records for placements not in compliance with the law on who can be foster parents.
In February 2010, Tulsa County District Judge Linda Morrissey ordered DHS to produce the names, birthdates and addresses of foster parents to KOKI-23 and the Tulsa World.
In February 2011, Morrissey entered a judgment for DHS to pay KOKI-23 a total of $59,282.52 for attorney fees and court costs and to pay the Tulsa World $16,477 in fees and costs.
DHS appealed those decisions, which are pending with the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376