SEMINOLE — In a report on a Seminole baby's death, an oversight agency last week found DHS workers left the girl with her mother even though both had illegal drugs in their systems when the child was born.
Tamberlynn Wheeler died three months after her birth in December 2007, showing major signs of malnourishment.
Her parents this year were charged with child neglect following an investigation made more complicated by the state Office of Chief Medical Examiner's inability to determine cause of death.
“I think a lot of citizens think that when a new mother tests positive for drugs, her baby is picked up and not returned until the mother is better,” said Lisa Smith, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, which did the report. “That's not always the case.”
The oversight agency said a DHS worker justified the decision to leave Tamberlynn and a 10-month-old sibling in the home — stating in one document that drug use by the infant's parents did not affect their abilities to parent Tamberlynn's sibling.
Tamberlynn's parents, Crystal Lynn Erb, 22, and Samuel Eugene Wheeler Jr., 29, both of Seminole, have been charged with child neglect. An investigation revealed Tamberlynn, who was born prematurely, weighed less at the time of her death than she did when she was born. In just over three months, her weight had dropped from 4 pounds 11 ounces to 4 pounds 6 ounces.
Investigators reported finding unused government milk vouchers in the home, and said the mother stated she had not used them to buy formula because she had lost the “code” needed to redeem them.
Smith noted there have been a number of cases in Oklahoma where children have died from alleged abuse or neglect after being left in homes where DHS documented drug abuse, but chose not to remove children.
She cited the Nov. 4 death of Bartlesville infant Maggie May Trammel, who was found dead in a washing machine after DHS had received multiple complaints of drug use by the infant's mother and others in the home.
Smith said there doesn't seem to be any consistency within DHS concerning whether a baby is taken away from a mother when they test positive for drugs at birth.
“It varies from worker to worker and county to county,” Smith said. “That's kind of what we're looking at now.”
Smith said there are a lot of factors to consider in determining whether the detection of illegal drugs at birth should be considered reason for automatic
“There is a lack of drug treatment beds available,” she said. “There are 206 on a waiting list for a program where mothers can take their children with them for drug and alcohol treatment.”
There is also a shortage of foster homes, she said.
Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for DHS, said workers look at each case individually. The presence of drugs is not automatic cause for removal. Workers also look at factors such as whether there are other competent adults in the home willing to make sure the baby will be safe, she said.
Powell said DHS reviews all death cases, but she didn't know whether any workers were found to have violated policies in Tamberlynn's case or whether any worker was disciplined. Powell said she also didn't know whether Erb or Wheeler participated in recommended treatment programs.
At the time of Tamberlynn's Dec. 31, 2007, birth, Erb tested positive for benzodiazepine, marijuana and an antidepressant, DHS reported. The baby tested positive for marijuana.
The father was questioned and admitted to a history of methamphetamine and marijuana abuse, saying he had last used methamphetamine about two or three years earlier and had last used marijuana about a month earlier, the Commission on Children and Youth reported.
DHS workers reported they confirmed allegations of substance abuse by Erb and failure to protect by Wheeler as the allegations pertained to the neglect of Tamberlynn. However they found the allegation of substance abuse by Erb as it pertained to the neglect of Tamberlynn's sibling was “unsubstantiated.”
“According to the OKDHS documentation, the drug use by Ms. Erb and Mr. Wheeler Jr. did not affect their abilities to parent Tamberlynn's sibling,” the report said. “Further documentation found that the OKDHS recommended that Ms. Erb and Mr. Wheeler Jr. participate in a drug and alcohol assessment, and follow through with all the recommendations made by the service provider.”
Tamberlynn's birth was not the first time DHS received a report of alleged child endangerment regarding Erb and Wheeler.
Six months before Tamberlynn was born, DHS received a complaint that her sibling had been exposed to domestic violence when Wheeler allegedly threw a knife at Erb after another man in the home had flirted with her.
A DHS worker interviewed the couple, four relatives and two other witnesses, all of whom denied that Wheeler had thrown a knife at Erb.
“Reportedly, the family resided with relatives and the relatives did not allow the couple to engage in physical altercations in the home and/or around Tamberlynn's sibling,” the commission's report said.
The DHS worker noted that Wheeler “drank an excessive amount of alcohol and that it caused him to be argumentative.”
The couple split for a while and Erb moved to California after the incident. Erb visited an emergency room in California due to problems with her pregnancy and tested positive for marijuana at that time, the report said.
“Ms. Erb did not receive prenatal care, was in an abusive relationship with the father of Tamberlynn's sibling, and was observed with a burn on her back,” the report said.
Erb told a DHS worker she suffered the injury when she was burned with a torch.
After Tamberlynn's death, the parental rights of Erb and Wheeler to her sibling were terminated. Parental rights to a third child, born later in California, also were terminated.
According to the OKDHS documen-
tation, the drug use
by Ms. Erb
and Mr. Wheeler, Jr. did not
affect their abilities
to parent Tamberlynn's sibling.”
the Commission on Children and Youth reported