SHAWNEE — DHS is being blamed for another girl's death.
This time, the state agency is being criticized for leaving 6-year-old Alexis Morris and her younger brother in the care of a stepmother who previously had two of her own young children die under tragic circumstances.
DHS chose to leave Alexis and her younger brother, Jordan Morris, there despite receiving 27 complaints of possible child abuse to those two children. The complaints came from multiple sources, including a doctor, teacher, neighbor, school counselor, child care provider and the children's natural mother, a lawsuit states.
The stepmother, Jennifer Jimenez, 29, of Shawnee, was charged with child abuse in November 2010 in Pottawatomie County — more than a year after Alexis' Sept. 25, 2009, death.
The felony criminal charge alleges that from Nov. 19, 2007, through the date of Alexis' death, Jimenez willfully and maliciously inflicted physical injuries to the two children.
Christina Potter, the children's natural mother, filed a lawsuit in August accusing the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and 11 of its current and former workers of failing to take action to protect her children.
“This has nothing to do with the money,” Potter said of the lawsuit. “That's dirty money.”
The lawsuit was filed to hold DHS officials accountable, she said.
“There are other kids out there being hurt and they're still not doing anything,” said Potter, who recalled her daughter loved playing princess and ballerina and was buried wearing a glittering tiara.
“I couldn't save her and they didn't even try,” Potter said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said it would be premature to comment on specifics of the case. The spokeswoman also said, “The events as alleged in lawsuits are not always the same as the facts as they occurred.”
Potter, 27, lives in Edmond. She said Alexis and Jordan had been in the custody of their father and his wife, Jimenez. Potter said she made a poor choice and was with an abusive boyfriend at that time and his family had drug issues. She said she has a new boyfriend and was given back custody of Jordan.
The lawsuit alleges DHS workers failed to inform the district attorney or judge about abuse allegations and says that after Alexis' death, a court-appointed special advocate for the children determined DHS was “guilty of turning a deaf ear on this case for many, many years.”
“DHS dropped the ball completely on this case,” said Darla Ash, Alexis' grandmother.
“DHS just needs to be reformed completely. That is all there is to it,” Ash said.
Death cause uncertain
The exact cause of Alexis' death is uncertain.
The stepmother claims she wasn't in the room at the time, but Alexis was injured when she fell from a bunk bed, said the stepmother's attorney, Allan Grubb of Shawnee.
Potter alleges in her lawsuit that the stepmother killed the girl.
The Oklahoma medical examiner officially ruled the probable cause of death as “undetermined” and the manner of death as “unknown.”
Alexis' medical history included an irregular heartbeat that could have caused her death, the autopsy report indicated. However, the pathologist noted an examination of the girl's body revealed “multiple contusions and abrasions on the scalp, back, buttocks, right flank, lower extremities, and on the face.”
“Due to the presence of trauma, it is felt that this death is better classified as undetermined with the manner unknown,” the autopsy states.
Potter told The Oklahoman there was another child in the home who reported witnessing Jimenez repeatedly slamming Alexis against the floor.
Grubb said he has heard that, but has not yet received information from prosecutors about witness statements.
“Children have changed their stories several times,” he said. He added that the other children were removed from the home after the incident and it's possible they are being influenced by the adults currently caring for them.
Richard Smothermon, Pottawatomie County district attorney, declined to comment on what witnesses have said.
Smothermon said he did not file a murder charge because the medical examiner didn't rule the death a homicide.
Smothermon and Grubb both said the child abuse case may go to trial in January.
Potter's lawsuit lists 27 specific instances in which people, including a doctor and various Pleasant Grove school officials, contacted DHS to report they suspected Alexis and/or her brother were being abused.
• On Dec. 11, 2007, a police report concerning suspected child abuse was
• On Oct. 1, 2008, officials at the children's school reported that bruises were discovered on Alexis' forearms, forehead, ribs, knees and shins. DHS workers investigated but said school officials did not know the origin of the injuries and abuse allegations could not be substantiated.
• Less than a month later, DHS received two complaints stating that Alexis' brother had reported that his stepmother had put duct tape on his mouth, nose and wrists and threw him on the bed to prevent him from waking a baby. DHS workers said the child denied the allegations when interviewed at his stepmother's home.
• DHS also received complaints the children would get “worked up” and “constantly puke” when told they would have to go back to Jimenez.
Jimenez, the stepmother, had a troubled past, having previously pleaded guilty to methamphetamine possession in 2003, records reveal.
She also had two young children who had died, the lawsuit states.
Donte Jimenez was nearly 3 when he choked to death on a hot dog fed to him by Jimenez in July 2009, records indicate.
“Donte Jimenez had a known eating disorder which interfered with the child's ability to safely eat food such as hot dogs,” the lawsuit alleges.
The other child, Eric, was reportedly 3 months old when he died in March 2001 from what the medical examiner described as “undetermined” causes.
“Unfortunately, accidental asphyxiation remains a possibility in this case which can neither be proven or disproven,” the lawsuit quotes the autopsy as stating. “Our investigator reports that it appears that the house was in a very filthy condition and liquor bottles were abundant. Although we have nothing from our standpoint to classify this as other than a potentially accidental death, we would stand ready to help you with any intervention that you feel necessary.”
Potter said Alexis' death continues to be traumatic for her entire family, but is especially hard on her son.
Jordan, now 7, “still has night terrors,” she said. “Screams out within the night sometimes. He whimpers and cries. ... He asked me for months, ‘When is my sister coming back?' I had to tell him she's not.”
“That's the hardest thing to do,” she sobbed. “It's not fair.”
Here are some dates listed in a lawsuit that DHS was told about abuse in the case of a girl who later died.
• June 28, 2005: DHS told of suspicions Alexis Morris and younger brother abused by father and stepmother.
• April 17, 2006: DHS told of bruising on children and suspicions they are being abused by father and stepmother.
• Dec. 11, 2007: Shawnee physicians file report with police after Alexis is treated for chin laceration. No record DHS investigated.
• April 8, 2008: Alexis' child care provider reports suspected child abuse. Alexis' mother later tells DHS Alexis and brother “get worked up” and “constantly puke” when it is time to go back to father and stepmother.
• Sept. 11, 2008: Teachers report Alexis arrives at school with head gash and blood all over her backpack.
• Oct. 1, 2008: School reports bruises on Alexis' forearms, forehead, ribs, knees and shins.
• Oct. 6, 2008: School reports new and different bruises on Alexis.
• Oct. 19, 2008: DHS told of allegations stepmother is taping the children's mouths, noses and wrists.
• May 7, 2009: School reports nine bruises on Alexis' brother.
• June 1, 2009: DHS told of allegations stepmother pulled Alexis' and her brother's hair and drove erratically.