Oklahoma DHS left baby with mother despite drug use

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services received a call when Tamberlynn Wheeler of Seminole was born because both the baby and her mother had drugs in their systems.
BY RANDY ELLIS rellis@opubco.com Published: October 2, 2011
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In a report on a Seminole baby's death, an oversight agency last week found DHS workers left the girl with her mother even though both had illegal drugs in their systems when the child was born.

Tamberlynn Wheeler died three months after her birth in December 2007, showing major signs of malnourishment.

Her parents this year were charged with child neglect following an investigation made more complicated by the state Office of Chief Medical Examiner's inability to determine cause of death.

“I think a lot of citizens think that when a new mother tests positive for drugs, her baby is picked up and not returned until the mother is better,” said Lisa Smith, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, which did the report. “That's not always the case.”

The oversight agency said a DHS worker justified the decision to leave Tamberlynn and a 10-month-old sibling in the home — stating in one document that drug use by the infant's parents did not affect their abilities to parent Tamberlynn's sibling.

Tamberlynn's parents, Crystal Lynn Erb, 22, and Samuel Eugene Wheeler Jr., 29, both of Seminole, have been charged with child neglect. An investigation revealed Tamberlynn, who was born prematurely, weighed less at the time of her death than she did when she was born. In just over three months, her weight had dropped from 4 pounds 11 ounces to 4 pounds 6 ounces.

Investigators reported finding unused government milk vouchers in the home, and said the mother stated she had not used them to buy formula because she had lost the “code” needed to redeem them.

Smith noted there have been a number of cases in Oklahoma where children have died from alleged abuse or neglect after being left in homes where DHS documented drug abuse, but chose not to remove children.

She cited the Nov. 4 death of Bartlesville infant Maggie May Trammel, who was found dead in a washing machine after DHS had received multiple complaints of drug use by the infant's mother and others in the home.

Smith said there doesn't seem to be any consistency within DHS concerning whether a baby is taken away from a mother when they test positive for drugs at birth.

“It varies from worker to worker and county to county,” Smith said. “That's kind of what we're looking at now.”

Smith said there are a lot of factors to consider in determining whether the detection of illegal drugs at birth should be considered reason for automatic removal.

“There is a lack of drug treatment beds available,” she said. “There are 206 on a waiting list for a program where mothers can take their children with them for drug and alcohol treatment.”

There is also a shortage of foster homes, she said.

Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for DHS, said workers look at each case individually. The presence of drugs is not automatic cause for removal. Workers also look at factors such as whether there are other competent adults in the home willing to make sure the baby will be safe, she said.

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According to the OKDHS documen-

tation, the drug use

by Ms. Erb

and Mr. Wheeler, Jr. did not

affect their abilities

to parent Tamberlynn's sibling.”

the Commission on Children and Youth reported

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