DHS balks at disclosing more records
by: DAVID HARPER World Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009
12/25/2009 4:29:51 AM
The plaintiffs' attorneys in a lawsuit that seeks top-to-bottom reform in the state's child-welfare system say the disclosure of additional records is needed to "ascertain the full extent of the deficiencies" at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
However, lawyers for the state counter that the plaintiffs' attorneys are trying to engage in a "fishing expedition" for information, even after they have already received about 600,000 pages of materials related to the case from the defense.
It's the latest dispute in a lawsuit that was filed in February 2008 in federal court in Tulsa. The lawsuit named various DHS officials as defendants and alleged that the agency routinely places children who are in state custody in unsafe situations in which many suffer further abuse and even death.
The original plaintiffs were nine children — who ranged in age from 4 months to 16 years when the complaint was filed — whom the lawsuit alleges suffered in DHS placements.
In May, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell granted the plaintiffs' request to make the lawsuit a class-action case, which expanded the number of potential plaintiffs to about 10,000 children.
Frizzell's ruling was appealed by the defendants to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering the issue after hearing oral arguments in Denver last month.
On July 8, Frizzell ended classwide pretrial "discovery" — or exchange of evidence between the parties — while the appeal of his ruling was pending.
The move allowed disclosure of relevant information concerning the original plaintiffs.
The defense claimed in a recent filing that on July 15, "as a gesture of good faith," it produced hundreds of thousands of pages of documents it had "tediously collected and reviewed."
However, the plaintiffs claimed in a Nov. 11 motion that the defense has "refused to provide discovery concerning the improper practices and deficiencies to which the named plaintiffs have been subjected."
Accompanying the plaintiffs' motion were two expert reports. Included in those filings were reports of children in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services who reportedly were scalded in bath water, sexually molested, beaten with tree switches and belts, and hit in the mouth.
In its response, the defense claims that the November filings by the plaintiffs had "nothing to do with the production of documents and everything to do with creating a media blitz."
The defense claims that the inclusion of the expert reports, which reinforce some of the broader claims in the lawsuit, was a "charade" meant to confuse the court and that the motion itself was an attempt to prematurely begin expensive class-wide discovery at state expense.
The DHS defendants claimed in their response that "the discovery material plaintiffs seek through their motion to compel has already been provided to them."
The plaintiffs countered in their recent reply that what they seek now is relevant to the scope of the danger that the plaintiffs are now facing and also to the issue of whether the defendants are acting with deliberate indifference to that alleged peril.
"It is precisely because additional records are required to make these determinations that the named plaintiffs seek, and are entitled to, the records in question," the plaintiffs' reply claims.