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Criminal background checks needed before child is reunited with family, Oklahoma House leader says

Oklahoma Rep. Kris Steele says he is surprised that DHS does not require criminal background checks before returning a child to its family.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: October 1, 2010 at 4:18 am •  Published: October 1, 2010

A House leader said Thursday he was surprised to learn criminal background checks are not a part of the process used by DHS before returning a child in state custody to his or her family, even though it's been several months since a 7-year-old girl was killed by her stepfather who had a criminal past.

"That concerns me a great deal," said Rep. Kris Steele, the designated speaker of the House of Representatives next session. "That's a problem that needs to be corrected. That is valuable information."

Deborah Smith, director of the children and family services division of the Department of Human Services, said the agency's policy is to run checks using available public websites, such as the state courts' system, the state Corrections Department's website and a national website that provides information on sex offenders.

Having the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation run a criminal-background check would cost $15 each, she said. It could cost DHS, which does about 2,500 investigations a month, about $900,000 a year to run criminal checks on at least two adults in each of those cases.

Smith said the agency cannot force a stepparent or other adult living with a parent to agree to undergo a criminal-background check.

"The majority of parents will," she said. "They want to bring their child home so certainly they're going to encourage their significant other to sign the form so they can get their child home."

Legislation plans

Steele, R-Shawnee, said he is considering filing legislation next year that would make undergoing a criminal-background check a requirement for the child to be returned to the family.

The safety of the children that are vulnerable and at risk of being abused or neglected is paramount, he said.

"I think $15 a placement is a pretty good use of funds if it could go toward providing information that would be important to ensuring their safety," he said.

Steele asked the House Human Services Committee to look into the DHS's child abuse and neglect review system after he read reports that showed the agency pushed for months to keep 7-year-old Aja Johnson with her mother and stepfather. The girl was abducted and killed in January by her stepfather, Lester Hobbs. Investigators said Hobbs killed the girl's mother in his house, left in her car with Aja, killed Aja, and killed himself.

Lester Hobbs had a criminal record. In 2001, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

"We need to continually look at ways that we can improve the services that we're providing to children in DHS custody or children in state custody," Steele said. "It shouldn't be just because there's been a tragic incident like the situation with Aja Johnson."

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