- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has paid out more than $5.6 million over the past four years to a New Jersey-based consulting group to oversee reforms to the state’s child welfare system.

The payments to Public Catalyst have continued while DHS offered voluntary buyouts to more than 400 employees in an effort to reduce spending by the agency because of declining state revenues.

The consulting group includes three experts, paid $315 an hour, who were appointed by a Tulsa federal judge to recommend and monitor reforms agreed to as part of a settlement to a class-action lawsuit that focused on the abuse of some children in state care, The Oklahoman reported Sunday (http://bit.ly/1QXksZi ).

But the experts aren’t the only ones being paid under the Public Catalyst contract. Their partners, associates, support staff and consultants also have been paid hourly rates ranging from $67 to $315, public records reveal.

During the first 47 months of the Public Catalyst contract, more than $4.9 million went to cover professional service fees, $278,222 for travel, $383,326 for consultant fees and $5,917 for other expenses.

In 2011, the year before the consultants were appointed, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services reported to the federal government that 0.48 percent of children had experienced maltreatment while in state care. The rate rose to 0.89 percent in 2012, 1.19 percent in 2013, and 1.27 percent in 2014, the last year for which complete statistics are available.

But the experts said it would be incorrect to conclude that the maltreatment of Oklahoma children in state care had more than doubled under their watch.

Before the oversight period began, DHS was only reporting instances of abuse and neglect that occurred in family settings that were investigated by Child Protective Services. Beginning in 2013, DHS began including instances of abuse and neglect in institutional settings that had been investigated by the DHS Office of Client Advocacy, causing the numbers to increase.

DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said preliminary data indicates the rate of maltreatment of Oklahoma children in state care declined every quarter during calendar year 2015, with a “dramatic drop” between the first quarter and the last one.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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