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Horrific deaths prompted calls for reform

Beginning with Kelsey Smith-Briggs, a series of high-profile child deaths in Oklahoma have prompted demands for reform.
BY RANDY ELLIS, NOLAN CLAY AND ROBBY TRAMMELL Staff Writers Modified: December 24, 2011 at 12:55 am •  Published: December 25, 2011

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.

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