The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has initiated steps to terminate two employees after an internal investigation into the January 2013 death of Quinten Wood, a 15-year-old special-needs youth who died after state officials allegedly failed to respond appropriately to complaints of neglect.
“Unfortunately, a thorough and comprehensive review of the facts and circumstances of Quinten's death led us to the difficult and sad conclusion that the individual actions of two employees associated with this case clearly violated agency policies and reasonable child protection practices,” DHS Director Ed Lake said Monday in a prepared statement. “Based upon the information that has been obtained, the decision has been made to initiate steps to terminate those employees.”
Lake described their actions as failure to do something very basic.
“When people just don't do the basics, I can't defend it,” he said. “If someone decides they are going to shirk a responsibility — it happens in every occupation — that's impossible to bulletproof with policy and training and supervision.”
Sheree Powell, DHS spokeswoman, said her agency will not name the employees involved or reveal details about what they allegedly did wrong until disciplinary proceedings become final. Both were served termination notices Friday.
A criminal investigation by the Oklahoma City Police Department is continuing, she said.
Lake credited Quinten's sister, Valerie Wood-Harber, of Arkansas, with pushing to make sure people would be held accountable after Wood-Harber failed in her repeated efforts to get assistance for her brother while he was alive.
Wood-Harber says she made 22 desperate telephone calls to DHS, but the calls failed to persuade anyone to come to the aid of her brother, whom she believes was suffering from neglect.
Wood-Harber later gathered more than 460,000 electronic signatures on a petition demanding an investigation and action after her brother's death. She submitted the results of the petition drive to Gov. Mary Fallin's office Jan. 7.
“Ms. Wood-Harber refused to let her brother's death be accepted as something unpreventable that occurred as a result of his disability,” Lake said. “Had it not been for her advocacy and persistence, the truth about what Quinten and his brother endured might never have been fully investigated. We hope that through discovery of the facts and the actions we are taking, they will have some peace going forward.”
Wood-Harber said Monday that she was pleased action was finally being taken.
“Nothing can bring Quinten back, but that said, I'm extremely happy that his life has inspired people to wake up and change the way the system works, because it's broken. It doesn't work at all,” she said. “They may not have been able to save him, but other children will be saved and be protected because of what he went through.”
Quinten suffered from a rare chromosomal disorder that rendered him unable to care for his most basic needs, his sister said. The Oklahoma medical examiner's office ruled Quinten died from natural causes, described as acute pneumonia, with Ring 9 chromosome disease a contributing factor.
Wood-Harber said Quinten lived with his father and a younger brother, Cameron, in a home along the border of Oklahoma City and Midwest City.
Quinten attended Midwest City High School, she said.
“Cameron was being left alone to take care of Quinten,” Wood-Harber said in January. “He was responsible for all of his daily care. He would get up with him in the morning and get him ready for school. He was responsible for … bathing him, diapering him, feeding him, cooking dinner, everything.”
That was too much for a 13- or 14-year-old child, she said.
“He told me that he wanted to kill himself,” she said.
Wood-Harber said she called DHS 22 times between the dates of Dec. 17, 2012, and Jan. 3, 2013. She said DHS sent a worker to talk to Cameron at school and to attempt to talk to Quinten, but the worker failed to follow up, and the reports of neglect weren't investigated.
Director expresses support
Once the allegations came to light, Kathryn Brewer, advocate general for DHS's office of client advocacy, began working on the case.
“We looked into this every which way we could when it comes to what happened or didn't happen with the child and what was going on with the case worker. We're trying to understand so that we're not applying 20/20 hindsight to a case,” Lake said.
Lake said he retains confidence in his child welfare staff, despite what happened, and the disciplinary actions Monday should not be interpreted as a sign that he will not stand behind his employees when they make tough decisions.
“Despite this instance, we have confidence in our child welfare workforce,” he said.
“Child protection is anxious work. Our workers are making life and death decisions every day under tremendous pressure never to err. Given the nature of our work, the fragility of the families we serve, and daunting caseloads, we know that tragedies may occur despite our best efforts. When our people are acting in good faith, doing everything they know to do, this agency should and will support them when that occurs.”
“This agency will not rush to blame or scapegoat front-line staff when the facts show they have performed appropriately and have acted in good faith,” Lake said. “We will not punish staff for system failures that are beyond their ability to control.”
Staff Writer Jennifer Palmer