A DHS child welfare worker was disciplined in February after she warned foster parents that a child under their care might be HIV-positive.
Fran Derrick, 62, of Oklahoma City, was suspended for three days without pay, records show. She is appealing her suspension to the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission.
“I thought I was doing the right thing,” Derrick told The Oklahoman.
“It's just one of those things. It's a big bureaucracy … and they have to be careful and cover themselves,” she said.
The Department of Human Services told Derrick in a Feb. 11 notice that she was being disciplined for telling the foster parents the child's mother tested HIV-positive.
HIV is a virus that can lead to AIDS, a disease that weakens the immune system and can be fatal.
“The line this employee crossed was not her act of informing the foster parent about the possible HIV exposure of this child, but rather disclosing the HIV information of another person and identifying the possible source of the child's exposure,” DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell told The Oklahoman.
“How the child could have been exposed was neither relevant nor necessary to ensure that appropriate actions were taken to protect the foster family and meet the needs of the child. Had the employee consulted with her supervisor, she would have been reminded of policy and training in the proper way to release this kind of sensitive information,” Powell said.
“It is our priority to protect children in state care as well as our dedicated foster parents,” the spokeswoman said.
“It is also our policy and practice to inform foster parents if there is a chance children have been exposed to HIV. There is a proper way to do that and the employee in this case violated both state law and policy in the manner she released the information.”
Derrick sees it differently.
She insists she was authorized by the state's child and juvenile laws to make the disclosure. Before being suspended, she told a DHS deputy director the law “states that I can disclose information to foster parents that would otherwise be confidential.”
DHS stated in Derrick's disciplinary notice that she told a supervisor in December that she had shared the mother's HIV status with the foster parents “without written authorization or consent.”
Derrick could not have gotten the mother's consent to reveal the test result because the mother was in a coma, The Oklahoman learned.
“I have not had any formal or informal training specifically regarding … AIDS and … HIV,” Derrick also told the DHS deputy director in February. “If Child Welfare Specialists are to act according to statutes, we must be made aware of statutes that affect our work. … It is impossible to keep abreast of all the statutes that might have a relationship to our work if we are not educated regarding them.”
DHS officials maintain all child welfare specialists are trained on the subject of disclosure of client information and records without a court order.
DHS officials would not reveal the age of the foster child. They also would not reveal if the child ever tested HIV-positive.
The Oklahoman learned of Derrick's suspension because the newspaper periodically makes an Open Records Act request for all DHS disciplinary records.
Derrick has worked at DHS since November 2010 and is a child welfare specialist II. She said she already has served her suspension. She plans to retire this year.
“Most of the people I started with are no longer with the agency. It's just too difficult,” Derrick said.
She also said, “Any day you could find somebody who kind of doesn't do exactly what policy states. There's just so much policy and there's so much gray area.”