More than 200 babies have been born to women in Oklahoma prisons in the last six years, and prison officials are facing a lawsuit for letting incarcerated mothers decide who will care for the babies.
The ongoing federal lawsuit centers on the murder of a 3-year-old girl who was known as “Precious Doe” until her body was identified.
The lawsuit contends the Oklahoma Corrections Department should contact the Oklahoma Department of Human Services whenever pregnant inmates give birth.
Corrections officials are fighting the lawsuit.
“We don't have any control or authority of the child because they're not in our custody,” spokesman Jerry Massie said.
The girl's father complains she would still be alive if prison officials had just notified DHS after she was born.
The girl, Erica Green, was born on May 15, 1997, about five weeks after her mother went to prison.
The mother had had documented problems in caring for four other children, according to the lawsuit.
“If there had just been a phone call, the child would have been placed in DHS custody,” said the father's attorney, Paul DeMuro, of Tulsa. “I just don't think it's that much to ask for those times when a child is born in prison for those agencies to talk with each other.”
The mother let an acquaintance take the baby, records show. The mother eventually took back Erica after being released.
“Had there been a file opened on Erica when she was born, as there should have been, they never would have let the baby be reunified with the mother,” the attorney said.
The mother's then-boyfriend killed Erica in Kansas City, Mo., in 2001. The case was infamous because Erica's body was decapitated and dumped in the woods. After being found, the body remained unidentified until 2005.
During those years, the girl became known nationwide as “Precious Doe.”
The girl's father, Larry D. Green, of Muskogee, filed a two-page handwritten lawsuit on his own in federal court in Tulsa in April 2010. In an unusual move, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell appointed an attorney to help him in the civil case.
Frizzell is the same judge who presided over a federal class-action lawsuit against DHS officials. DHS officials recently settled the class-action lawsuit, agreeing to make major improvements in the agency's child welfare services.
Lawsuit to proceed
The judge in April agreed the father's lawsuit over Erica's death can proceed against DHS officials and prison officials.
The judge, however, rejected the father's request to order DHS and the Corrections Department to adopt policies on the placement of children born to women who are incarcerated.
“Tragically, plaintiff's daughter is dead,” the judge wrote. “Thus, entry of the requested injunction would not prevent irreparable harm to her, and plaintiff has asserted no facts establishing he has standing to sue on behalf of any other children in DOC and/or DHS custody.”
The father is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. His attorney, though, said the case is really about trying to encourage DHS and the Corrections Department to look at their practices and policies.
The Corrections Department asserts its employees acted reasonably and in accordance with the agency's policies and procedures. It calls the lawsuit frivolous.