In the murder case that sparked a public outcry against the state's child-welfare agency, an Oklahoma City man admitted Friday he beat to death his 5-year-old daughter, Serenity Deal.
Sean Devon Brooks, 32, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He will not be eligible for parole until he is almost 70, a prosecutor said.
“In a situation like this, justice is really hollow because we can never bring back Serenity,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said. “I'm glad he took responsibility for his actions.”
The Department of Human Services came under intense scrutiny after Serenity died June 4 from an assault. She died of a head injury less than a month after she began living full time with her father in Oklahoma City at the recommendation of DHS child-welfare workers.
She was placed with her father from foster care, even though she was injured twice in January during overnight visits with him. The second time, she came back to a foster home with black eyes and a swollen and bruised face, records show.
DHS admits mistakes in Serenity's case
Serenity's name for a time this year became recognized publicly as almost synonymous with DHS problems in a way not seen since Kelsey Smith-Briggs, 2, died in 2005.
DHS officials acknowledged child-welfare workers made mistakes in the handling of Serenity's placement. DHS commissioners in September formed a special committee to review her death and other child deaths.
They acted after Gov. Mary Fallin complained of “the appearance of lax oversight on the part of DHS commissioners.”
The father, who worked as a motel clerk, had denied to police that he hurt the girl. He gave no explanation at his sentencing Friday for why he killed her. A police detective plans to try to interview him again next week.
Brooks also showed no visible signs of remorse during the brief sentencing. In the paperwork for his guilty plea, he wrote he committed murder by beating his daughter on the head. He also admitted he did not seek medical attention for the head injury.
His punishment was the outcome of a plea agreement. Brooks waived all his appeal rights.
The district attorney said Serenity's maternal grandparents were comfortable with the plea agreement because it gave them some finality.
DHS fired two
Prosecutors alleged he beat her in the motel where he had worked overnight. They alleged he then took her home to his apartment and tried to make her death look like a shower accident. An autopsy found she died from the head injury but also had seven recent fractured ribs, as well as scrapes and bruises all over her head and small body.
DHS became involved in Serenity's care after her mother was accused of molesting a boy. Her mother eventually went to prison.
Brooks had not known he was Serenity's father until she was 3.
DHS suspended four employees after her death. One then quit, another committed suicide and the other two were fired.
In termination papers, the agency said those two workers failed to fully check the father's background, which included times when he had been violent.
A DHS spokeswoman said, “There were required practices in place that, if followed, would have given ... workers a clearer picture of Sean Brooks, his relationship with his family and other children, his abilities to parent, and his past behaviors and propensity to violence.”
Records showed DHS never contacted the mother of Brooks' three other children until after Serenity died. That woman, Brooks' ex-girlfriend, has said she would have warned DHS workers that she considered Brooks too violent to be around their children. She also has claimed he “sold drugs the entire six years she was with him,” records show.
The fired workers appealed to the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission. Their attorney claims DHS singled them out and made them scapegoats in an effort to end the controversy.
Both have said they acted properly. They have said the evidence at the time of Serenity's injuries in January indicated the injuries were from accidents.
“I don't have a crystal ball. I couldn't possibly have known any of this was going to happen,” one said.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation still is conducting a criminal inquiry into whether DHS workers violated any laws in their handling of Serenity's placement.