By Rachel Bussett
One of the things that I love about the practice of law is that every day is different.
Throughout my day I can touch many lives and often work in several different areas of law. The last few weeks have been all about children and families – reunification of families in deprived proceedings and the creation of families through adoption.
Yesterday, I spent my afternoon meeting with new clients who needed assistance with cases involving DHS. I’ve been investigating DHS for several years now and have found evidence of repeated violations of parental and child rights by the agency. Over the years as I have represented individuals in family, criminal and deprived cases, clients have come to me with similar stories of workers making threats of the loss of their children if parents didn’t fall into line and do what they were told, promises of future opportunities to see their children if they just gave in and signed their rights away, and/or intimidation of witnesses over their failure to testify how DHS workers wanted them to testify.
When I first started my investigation it was easy to dismiss these allegations by the parents and family members as these kids had been taken into custody for a reason – drug abuse, neglect, physical abuse, mental abuse and so on. It is easy to assume the workers know something I don’t in making their determinations. However, after years of representing families in the system it became clear to me that the workers weren’t privy to better information than I was. Rather, there were systemic problems within the agency and many of the workers simply parroted what their bosses told them to do.
REPRESENTING GOVERNMENT WORKERS
During this time, I have also represented several state and governmental employees. My firm presently represents numerous current and former DHS employees who have come forward about wrongdoing within the agency. These allegations have been covered in the news media on Channel 9 and in several newspapers. Whiles those media outlets have been a good general source of information, they have not been able to tell the entirety of the story of these workers.
As more workers have come forward DHS has upped the ante in our game. There are no children to use as pawns here so they’ve resorted to other means. One client has been threatened with criminal charges for turning over evidence to me for safekeeping when evidence was disappearing from state offices. DHS attorneys refused to provide the worker a statement of her Garrity guaranteed rights for compelled investigations for governmental employees. Her home has been mysteriously watched.
Another client has been fired after years of service with no explanation. DHS claimed it had a valid reason to terminate her, yet they did not respond to her application for unemployment benefits after allegedly terminating her for cause. The client had been tied to me in social media posts, had spoken to the media, and was terminated some 24 hours after sending an email highly critical of the agency, the failure to protect children, and the violation of the law. The same employee was also demoted after previously complaining of behaviors which she believed amounted to illegal restraints of children in custody in violation of the rules established as a result of the Terry D. v. DHS settlement of a class action lawsuit filed in 1978.
A worker who we have filed suit on behalf of has someone at the agency watching her every move. After returning from medical leave DHS is setting her up for failure. She’s being assigned tasks that aren’t her “normal job” and things she never did before. The co-worker has told our client that it’s her job to document every mistake she makes. When she couldn’t take the retaliation anymore she quit.
A fourth worker was forced to work when she was out on military leave serving her country. She was told it didn’t matter that she wasn’t supposed to be working during this time it had to be done. She quit when she couldn’t take it anymore. Another has been forced to investigate one of their own abusers from their childhood.
I represent children and families where kids have been in custody for years because of minor things like a dirty house and the children have been horribly abused while in state custody. In one case the foster parent is being criminally prosecuted and the child will be horribly disfigured forever.
Seeing that baby in the hospital was the hardest experience of my life covered with bandages and tubes. It took every ounce of strength I had not to cry while meeting with the family. I thought to myself if a worker showed up at my house on the right day, it would be dirty. There would be dirty dishes, and piles of laundry and stuff everywhere because I have four kids and we are real people. I could tell you war stories about what I’ve seen all day long but it would never convey the magnitude of the tragedy or what appears to be the disinterest of the powers that be at the state agency charged with protecting people.
Two more workers have had investigations piled on them to the breaking point. The rules of 12 investigations do not seem to apply to them with the Child Welfare Workers being assigned five or more cases in a week, being threatened over the failure to complete old investigations and being made to work long hours.
The employees I represent say that they worry their kids are at risk of being alleged to be deprived because of the hours they are forced to work and the conditions they are forced to work in. It’s now become the norm for me to email the agencies general counsel quite frequently to tell them of the problems with the cases – like recently a case of confirmed sexual abuse by the agency but they didn’t turn it over to law enforcement for six months. I am appalled.
As I write this for my readers, I struggle with even knowing where to begin to tell you about the legal issues that this conduct has created. In my opinion, there are contract issues, civil issues and employment issues. The State of Oklahoma by and through the Department of Human Services is depriving these children and their families of their constitutional rights and have violated the settlement agreement which created the Pinnacle Plan.
The State of Oklahoma has failed its workers by failing to ensure that it has adequately funded its agency to comply with the terms of the settlement agreement designed to protect the civil rights of the children in custody covered by the settlement as well as any future children who could come into custody.
FAILURE TO COMPLY
At its simplest, a settlement agreement is a contract. When DHS settled the case of D.G. v Henry and Department of Human Services a contract was created. That contract was the Pinnacle Plan. The Pinnacle Plan has very specific requirements that the state agreed it must meet to protect the civil rights of the children and to take care of the workers.
During the six months since these workers’ case first hit the news, I have talked to hundreds of current and former DHS workers who have all echoed the same thing:
DHS is not meeting Pinnacle Plan Guidelines
DHS manipulates its reporting by leaving employees no longer employed by the agency on the system with cases assigned to make it appear that compliance is better than it is.
DHS leadership uses intimidate tactics with employees and parents to force compliance with their demands.
DHS employees show preference and bias in parental recommendation for placement, treatment, and permanency planning.
If this was any private party engaging in this kind of conduct after a settlement agreement conduct was put into place, a breach of contract lawsuit would already be on file. Yet, we sit here today because we are dealing with a state agency and we have lots of administrative hoops to jump through before we can ever get to the meat of this claim.
It’s extremely frustrating when even those whose life it is to deal with the law, can’t even figure out how to make a state agency comply with the law. Thankfully yesterday I learned that the new administration is interested in meeting with us about what we have found. I spoke with Governor Stitt during his campaign and he said he was committed to fixing these issues. I hope that he meant it.
The flip side to these extremely frustrating interactions with DHS child welfare is the immense joy that comes with helping a family through adoption and reunification. While I was in Israel two families that we have been working with were reunited. In my opinion neither of these two families should have had their children taken. Did they have issues that they needed help with – absolutely, but the children were not abused and should not have been taken out of their homes.
On the flip side, I’ve dealt with families where the children were shockingly abused and the parents were consumed by drugs where the workers rightfully wanted the children out of the home but management said “no.” Three of those cases resulted in a child death.
This work is what prompted me to throw my hat in the ring last year for political office. It’s also why I will run again maybe for the same position or maybe for a different position.
The point being that I know that change needs to happen and I can only make so much of that change in the courtroom. If I don’t step up and do it how can I expect anyone else to do so either?
Rachel Bussett is an Oklahoma City attorney. She can be reached at 405-605-8073.