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Pair of Oklahoma child deaths spotlight disturbing trend

The November washing machine death of a Bartlesville infant and last summer's drug overdose death of a teenager at a family reunion are examples of a disturbing trend in Oklahoma.
BY RANDY ELLIS Published: December 12, 2010

The November washing machine death of a Bartlesville infant and last summer's drug overdose death of a Waukomis teenager at a family reunion are examples of a disturbing trend in this state.

In both cases, children died after the state Department of Human Services had received multiple complaints of drug abuse and other problems in their homes.

The chairman and vice chairman of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services told The Oklahoman they believe a new state law that narrows conditions under which children can be removed from homes has created situations where DHS workers and courts are leaving children in homes when the better choice might be to remove them.

The new law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires child welfare workers, law enforcement officers and courts to determine there is an “imminent safety threat” to a child before that child can be removed from a home. Previously, officials only had to show the child's surroundings were a danger to the child's welfare.

Response may be hindered

Under the new standard, officials must determine the threat is so severe that “in the very near future and without the intervention of another person, a child would likely or in all probability sustain severe or permanent disability or injury, illness or death.”

“My feeling on it is that when they changed that to imminent safety threat, I think that hurt us greatly on being able to remove some children,” said Aneta Wilkinson, vice chairman of the commission. “It seems like they raised the bar so high that maybe that has really hurt us. I think we need to look into it more and make some changes.”

Wilkinson said she wonders whether the Bartlesville baby would have been removed under the old standard.

Wilkinson said she has worried about whether the new law would endanger the lives of children ever since it passed.

Commission Chairman Richard DeVaughn said he shared the same concerns.

State Rep. Ron Peters, one of the authors of the legislation, said the law was enacted because an audit by experts indicated Oklahoma authorities were removing too many children from their homes — doing so at a rate more than twice the national average.

About 70 to 80 percent of those children were returned within a week, which indicated that services often could be provided without removing children, he said.

Peters, R-Tulsa, said he didn't want to second-guess child welfare employees who work under stress, but he has reviewed the reports on the Bartlesville infant's death and believes that the complaints, if verified, met the standard to take children into custody.

DHS Director Howard Hendrick was noncommittal about impact of the new law, saying it is “impossible to know” whether child welfare workers, prosecutors and judges are making different decisions.

“I don't think anyone, either before or after the change, is going to knowingly put a child at risk of harm by not protecting that child where they reasonably believe the child may be hurt if not removed,” Hendrick said.

However, Hendrick acknowledged it is “possible that some workers, assistant district attorneys and judges may be viewing cases more narrowly.”

Numerous complaints

DHS received six complaints regarding the Bartlesville home of Lyndsey Fiddler in the months before her 10-day-old infant, Maggie May Trammel, was found dead in a washing machine Nov. 4. Felony child neglect charges were subsequently filed against Fiddler, 26.

The agency received 10 complaints regarding the care and safety of Linda Tucker, 15, and her siblings in the months leading up to her drug overdose death at a family reunion. Her mother, Doris Sharrane Rigsby, 33, is one of three people charged with first-degree murder for allegedly giving methamphetamine to the girl.

Their deaths continue a pattern observed by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth in a report released last June.

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