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."
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."
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.
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.
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.