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
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After the meeting, Juanita Nely, who was Aja's foster mother for about a year before DHS returned the girl to her mother, said she was angry the agency did not run a criminal-background check on Lester Hobbs.

"It just astonishes me to find out that they placed Aja in a home without checking the background of the stepparent that was going to be taking care of this child," said Nely, of Carney.

Nely said she told Steele of her concerns "to stop this from happening again. I can't save this child. ... I'm hoping to be able to save another child from this ever happening again."

Smith said she couldn't comment because DHS is in the review process of the Aja Johnson case and is responding to an investigative report issued by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.

Changing emphasis

Steele said it's time for DHS to de-emphasize its goal of placing a child who is in state custody with the family. He intends to file legislation next year that would address that issue.

"We're talking about a delicate situation and I do understand why there is an emphasis on reunification," he said. "Where it's possible and permissible and there's not a risk of danger to the child, by all means I am supportive of reunification."

Steele said progress reports made by DHS on the placement of a child should be shared with others involved in the child's welfare, such as the district attorney's office, the child's attorney and the judges.

Committee members also heard from prosecutors who told them child welfare workers are overworked and underpaid, which leads to their high turnover rate.

"If you're going to require them to do the work they do, which is incredibly difficult, you ought to pay them better and train them better," District Attorney Richard Smothermon said. "When all you do every day is see the horrors of what just happened to children and take children from their mothers, it becomes difficult at the rate of pay they're making."

Beginning child welfare workers are paid $25,730, according to DHS.

Coordination needed

Smothermon, district attorney for Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties, prosecuted a Meeker couple for the 2005 child abuse death of 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs. That case led to numerous changes in DHS policies regarding child abuse and neglect investigations.

Smothermon said better coordination is needed between law enforcement officers and child welfare workers in looking into incidents involving children.

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