SHAWNEE — The 2009 death of 6-year-old Alexis Morris was in the same region of the state where DHS child welfare workers have been involved in at least four other cases that ended in violent deaths.
Records reveal that two of the 11 DHS workers and supervisors allegedly involved in Alexis' case have been disciplined by the agency within the past four years. It is not possible from the records to determine whether the discipline was connected to that case.
Serenity Deal, 5, Kelsey Smith-Briggs, 2, Aja Johnson, 7, and Melissa Ellison, 5, all suffered violent deaths within the past nine years after having come under supervision of DHS in Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties. Aja's DHS case was closed before her death, said Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for DHS.
Powell said DHS administrators are highly aware of child deaths in Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties and for more than a year have been engaged in a special focus program to identify deficiencies in those counties and provide additional training.
“This broad assessment includes reviews of individual cases, management of the offices and decision making, as well as communications between the counties, district attorneys and the courts,” Powell said. “We have also instituted weekly training sessions with our legal division, county staff and assistant district attorneys.”
A lawsuit over Alexis' death alleges one of the disciplined workers, Tamara Story, was both a close friend and worked at DHS with a sister of Alexis' father.
Alexis' mother contends that relationship prompted Story and other workers to leave Alexis and a brother at their father's home when they should have been removed.
Story declined to comment when contacted by The Oklahoman.
Records show Story is one of two DHS workers involved in Alexis' case who have been disciplined by the agency.
Story was fired by DHS in April for dereliction of duty and having medical limitations that prevented her from performing her duties.
Her discharge letter indicates she failed to appear at work the last nine months she was employed, was on medical leave without pay for a portion of that time and had complained actions taken weren't fair because her medical problems were “OKDHS' fault.”
Records show Story was suspended without pay for five days in April 2010 for unsatisfactory performance and misconduct and had twice before received written reprimands on the same grounds.
At the time of her suspension, she was cited for more than 20 areas of substandard performance. Those included falsifying documents in her permanency child placement caseload, lack of worker contacts with parents, being “not diligent at all” in searching for relatives with whom children could be placed, announcing child visits in advance and allowing parent-child unsupervised weekend visitation and trial reunifications without safety assessments of the homes.
In that April 12, 2010, disciplinary letter, DHS Area IV Director William Wilson Jr. ripped the performance of child welfare workers in Pottawatomie County, noting that even though that county was one of two focus counties within his 15-county jurisdiction that had received extra training, a review revealed “outcomes for children were extremely disappointing in most categories.”
“In fact, Pottawatomie is the first and only county in Area IV to have had scores of zero (on a scale of 100) in any category, much less several categories,” Wilson wrote.
The county scored:
• 0 percent in substantially achieving the goal of providing permanency and stability for children in their living situations.
• 0 percent in substantially achieving the goal of preserving continuity of family relationships and connections for children.
• 0 percent in substantially achieving the goal of enhancing the capacity of families to provide for their children's needs.
• 67 percent in substantially achieving the top goal of protecting children from abuse and neglect.
• 33 percent in substantially achieving the goal of maintaining children in their home whenever possible and appropriate.
• 67 percent in substantially achieving the goal of providing children with appropriate services to meet educational needs.
• 50 percent in providing children with services to meet their physical and mental health needs.
Gloria Weiss was the other Pottawatomie County DHS child welfare worker named in the lawsuit who has been disciplined by the agency.
Records show Weiss was suspended without pay for five days in 2008 for misconduct that included unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, failure to follow DHS policy and discourteous treatment of clients, employees or members of the public.