For many, awareness of the fractured state of Oklahoma's child-welfare system began in 2005 with the death of a 2-year-old Meeker girl named Kelsey Smith-Briggs.
A lengthy investigation by The Oklahoman revealed Kelsey died from child abuse in the home of her mother and stepfather despite being regularly seen by child-welfare workers. A judge also was overseeing her care. The toddler for months experienced serious injuries including a broken collarbone, bruises and two broken legs.
The failure of state officials to save Kelsey prompted The Oklahoman to scrutinize later child abuse deaths to see whether DHS workers had received prior complaints regarding those victims and if officials responded appropriately.
Time after time, The Oklahoman found DHS had received multiple complaints of abuse and neglect in the months leading up to the violent deaths of children. Among them:
Ryan Weeks, 3, of Elk City, who spent his whole life in a home where there were periodic reports of domestic violence and drug use leading up to his November 2008 beating death. An older sibling told DHS in September 2007 he watched his mother and her boyfriend smoke “weed” and the boyfriend forced the child to smoke “weed” and drink until he threw up. DHS workers bounced back and forth between recommending termination of parental rights and renewed reunification efforts in the time leading up to Ryan's death. The boy's foster mother said she pleaded with DHS not to return him to his mother because of bruises he sustained during previous visits.
Aja Johnson, 7, who was abducted and murdered by her stepfather, Lester Hobbs, in 2010. A report showed DHS pushed for months to keep Aja and her stepsister in Hobbs' home despite repeated reports of abuse that included Hobbs throwing lit firecrackers in her bedroom to awaken her and slashing her mattress and sheets with a knife.
Maggie May Trammel, a 10-day-old infant who died in 2010 after being placed in a washing machine at her mother's Bartlesville home. DHS officials were notified at Maggie's birth that her mother had been using drugs while pregnant and had received a half dozen previous child welfare complaints.
Serenity Deal, 5, who died in June from a severe head injury less than a month after she began living with her father at the recommendation of DHS. Serenity was placed with her dad even though she was injured twice in January during overnight visits with him. DHS subsequently suspended four workers involved with the case. Two were later fired, one committed suicide and the fourth quit.
The Oklahoman's examination of child death cases also turned up concerns about operations of DHS's day care licensing division.
Joshua Minton, 2, of Sperry died in 2007 after Tulsa home day care provider Vicki Chiles taped his mouth shut and bound his hands because he was making noise during nap time. A review of the death found DHS had violated its own policies by failing to close the home earlier after Chiles admitted striking another boy with a fly swatter. The state paid $700,000 to settle a lawsuit over its actions.
After Joshua's death, The Oklahoman revealed DHS had granted waivers to more than 90 former criminals — including a cop shooter, admitted child abusers and prostitutes — to enable them to work, operate or be present in Oklahoma day cares.
A subsequent investigation revealed DHS had granted state family child care home licenses to more than 230 child care homes without first requiring operators to obtain city permits or notifying the cities that the DHS licenses had been issued.
The situation came to light after one of the child care homes DHS had licensed was declared “unfit for human occupancy” after Del City officials examined it and found huge holes in the walls, a dangerously exposed space heater, a low-hanging cable in the yard and other health and safety hazards.