Okla. Foster Children Can Proceed With Class Action
(CN) - The 10th Circuit upheld the certification of a class of about 10,000 current or future Oklahoma foster care children who say the state fails to protect them from abuse and neglect.
Nine unnamed foster children accused the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services of failing to protect foster children from abuse and neglect, assigning massive caseloads to child welfare workers, failing to adequately monitor the children, placing them in unsafe and overcrowded emergency shelters or foster homes, and bouncing the children from one bad home or shelter to another, depriving them of the chance to develop critical family relationships.
The Denver-based appeals court ruled that the children had successfully argued that, despite the proposed class' "considerable diversity," the state's alleged endemic problems create a "risk of harm shared by the entire class."
The foster children said the agency consistently fails to follow its own policy requiring caseworkers to visit children in the foster care program at least once per month. For the last five years, Oklahoma has placed among the three worst states in the nation for the abuse or neglect of children in foster care, they claimed. They also cited a report by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth finding that 25 percent of the foster homes it reviewed had "serious safety issues and should never have been approved for placement by OKDHS in the first place."
The agency objected to the class certification, arguing that, as each child's case is unique, determining whether or not a child is at risk would require "an individualized determination for each foster child."
It also challenged the claim that each child in the program is at risk, saying only 1.2 percent of Oklahoma foster children reported abuse or neglect in 2006.
But the three-judge appellate panel in Denver rejected the agency's arguments against class certification.
Judge Bobby Baldock said the agency and its officials had confused the class certification process with the actual trial.
"Requiring named plaintiffs to prove all class members were inadequately monitored or are actually exposed to a threat of harm due to OKDHS's monitoring practices at the certification stage would require them to answer the common question of fact or law, rather than just prove it exists," Baldock wrote (italics in original).
"Despite defendants' repeated suggestions otherwise, at the class certification stage named plaintiffs do not bear the burden of proving the veracity of their complaint's allegations," Baldock wrote.