A legislative task force plans to look into why DHS kept a 5-year-old boy away from his parents after his baby brother died, but did not act to remove the children of the baby's sitter.
“It just didn't make sense to me,” said Rep. Jason Nelson, who is head of the task force looking into policies at the state Department of Human Services.
The baby, Jacob “Jake” Ryan Hedger, stopped breathing after being at the baby sitter's home for seven hours March 8. He died the next day. He was almost 9 months old. The death has been ruled a homicide.
His brother, Sam Hedger, spent more than two months away from his parents, Zane and Leah Hedger.
The baby sitter, Traci Kramer, 41, has four children, including two sons, then 8 and 9, records show. DHS did close her unlicensed home day care, but did not seek removal of her own children from her home.
Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, said, “My reading of the policies and the law is that no other kid should have ever been removed. The baby sitter's kids or the surviving brother should have not been removed.”
“It took so long to reunite the (Hedger) family that it's really disturbing,” Nelson said. “This is a child that started to not do well in school. He was a great student. His mother is a teacher. It was really traumatic. What I'm told and understand is the injury most likely had to have occurred while at the baby sitter's house ... I've talked to other doctors about it, granted not forensic experts, but some emergency room doctors that have said that an injury like that would likely have had to have happened within an hour or two before she found him in that condition ... None of the kids should have been removed. It's disturbing why the one was removed.”
Sam, now 6, was taken to a shelter and then was allowed to stay with his aunt until he could return home for good. DHS workers acted to keep Sam from his parents even though a hospital social worker reported on March 9 that she and a doctor “do not think the parents did this to the baby,” according to a DHS report.
Sam's aunt, Tammy Padgett, said being separated from his parents was traumatic from the start. She recalled Sam's first visit with his parents at a DHS office after he was taken from his home.
“The DHS worker was late showing up, and so I'm there with him and it was the morning after Jake died and that morning I had had to tell him that his brother was dead,” she said.
“And they came up on the elevator, got off, and he ran into their arms crying,” she said. “Everybody was crying, and, then, it just dawned on me that I had signed paperwork that says I will not let them be present together without this supervisor present. So I had to yank him out of their arms and send them around the corner and everybody is bawling and waiting for this late worker to show up.
“Then the worker in … their visitation room got on to Leah because they were crying. She pulled her aside and she said, ‘This is supposed to not be teary. You're not supposed to be crying. This is supposed to be a happy visit for him.' And, Leah said, ‘His baby brother just died, you know, our baby just died. He's got to process that grief.' You know, just wacky stuff.”
Padgett said she once asked a DHS official why the baby sitter's four children were not picked up. She said she was told: “We knew that if we picked both sets of children up, we would be 50 percent wrong.”
Also traumatic for Sam was that he witnessed the baby sitter trying to revive his baby brother. Sam was at the home after spending the morning in kindergarten. He told investigators the baby sitter was worried because his brother wouldn't wake up.
A DHS spokeswoman, Sheree Powell, said Sam was removed because of safety concerns. She said an assistant district attorney had to agree with the recommendation and a judge ordered the removal.
“We worked with the family until the concerns were resolved,” Powell said.
“Our hearts go out to the Hedgers for the tragic death of their son,” she said. “We understand their frustrations over the removal of their son.”
She did not directly address why the Kramer children were not removed. Instead, she said, “Ages and verbal abilities of children are factors in determining if safety concerns exist and whether or not children may be at risk of abuse or neglect.”
She said DHS will discuss the case with Nelson and two other legislators who had concerns.
Nelson questions whether DHS is inconsistent in its training of workers. He recalled talking this summer with a group of 15 to 18 DHS child welfare workers from across the state about how the intake process works.
“Pretty soon the whole room had melted down with disagreement,” he said.
It took so long to reunite the (Hedger) family that it's really disturbing. This is a child that started to not do well in school. He was a great student. His mother is a teacher. It was really traumatic.”
Rep. Jason Nelson