In a state with far too many heart-wrenching child welfare cases, Serenity Deal's may be the saddest of all.
Serenity was a 5-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her father in June 2011. The little girl's mother had been accused of molesting a boy, and so the Department of Human Services became involved. DHS workers recommended Serenity be placed with her biological father, Sean Devon Brooks, even though she had been injured twice during previous visits with him. Brooks, who's now in prison for his crime, didn't even know Serenity was his daughter until she was 3.
The case involved DHS workers in Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties who disagreed about Serenity's placement. Those in Pottawatomie County, supervisor Jennifer Shawn and child welfare specialist Randy Lack, recommended the girl live with her father. In Lincoln County, child welfare specialist Donald Wheeler urged caution and his boss, Wes Priest, backed him.
Soon after Serenity's death, all four were suspended. Not long after that, Wheeler, a 24-year veteran of the agency, killed himself. “They (DHS investigators) were just trying to dump everything on him,” said Priest, who eventually quit his job with the agency. Wheeler told his wife, in a recorded message found after his death, “I can't believe they are giving me up.”
Shawn was fired on misconduct, dishonesty and other grounds — DHS investigators accused her of 67 policy violations in Serenity's case. Lack also was fired. Last week, they each pleaded no contest in Pottawatomie County District Court to a misdemeanor charge of suppressing evidence from the judge who handled the case. They agreed to never work for DHS again.
District Attorney Richard Smothermon said his investigation showed Priest and Wheeler had done nothing wrong. If evidence had not been suppressed, he said, the judge's decision about where to place Serenity would have been different. If only ...