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Oklahoma Department of Human Services commission forms committee to look into child deaths

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services Commission on Tuesday formed a committee to look into deaths of children and adults in DHS care.
BY RANDY ELLIS AND NOLAN CLAY Published: September 28, 2011

The Department of Human Services Commission has formed a special committee to look into deaths of children and adults in DHS care.

The Special Review Committee will be headed by former Oklahoma County District Attorney Wes Lane, one of two new DHS commission members.

“It's just tragedy all the way around,” Lane said of a series of high-profile deaths of children in custody of the state welfare agency. “I don't think this is like some hunt for fault, but I really do think we have a responsibility of accountability.”

The announcement of the new committee came Tuesday during the first meeting that Lane and new Commissioner Brad Yarbrough attended. They are Gov. Mary Fallin's initial appointments to the nine-member Oklahoma Commission for Human Services.

The committee's formation represented a dramatic departure for the commission, which has been heavily criticized in the past for failure to publicly respond to the deaths of children in DHS care.

The governor, herself, earlier this month criticized commissioners for the “appearance of lax oversight” in the handling of the death of 5-year-old Serenity Deal.

Serenity died June 4, less than a month after she began living with her father full time at the recommendation of some DHS workers.

The girl was placed with her father, Sean Devon Brooks, even though she was injured twice in January during overnight visits with him. Serenity's mother had been accused of molesting a boy.

Brooks, 31, of Oklahoma City, is charged with first-degree murder. He has denied to police that he beat his daughter.

One DHS worker involved in the case committed suicide. A DHS supervisor quit. Another worker and supervisor were fired.

Unfortunate case

DHS Director Howard Hendrick described the situation as an unfortunate case the agency will have to work through.

“Anytime you have a situation where you have something go wrong and required the action that we had to take ... it's unfortunate,” he said.

“We held responsible those who had case responsibility. And that's really where this case, at least we believe, this case went awry. We don't have that in lots of other cases. I think we're all accountable. ... I think that's why we're taking the action that we've taken.”

Lane said he hopes the commission can examine the deaths to determine whether the agency is doing the “best it can as far as humanly possible” to make sure the best policies are in place and that they are being followed.

“Everybody's on board,” he said. “Everybody wants to see children protected.”

“I expect to bring in people from the outside out in the community who have certain areas of expertise who can help,” Lane said.

Yarbrough was selected Tuesday to serve as chairman of an Organizational Structure Committee that will seek to determine the commission's proper oversight role.

Yarbrough said he wants the committee to determine the “clear responsibility” of the commission, whose members do not receive salaries for their work.

“On one extreme, no one is naive enough to believe a commission should micro manage the DHS,” he said.

“On the other, all believe it would be irresponsible to accept some perfunctory role.”

Yarbrough will take over as commission chairman at the governor's request after the commission's regular October meeting.

The governor praised formation of the two committees Tuesday as being a good step toward establishing strong oversight and said she was pleased her two appointees were diving right in on that effort.

Governor criticized

Fallin drew criticism Tuesday from former Commissioner George Young, who was replaced by Lane.

Young said he was disappointed Fallin didn't appoint a black or Hispanic commissioner with at least one of her appointments.

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