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 â€œimminent safety threatâ€ 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 â€œin 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.â€
â€œMy 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,â€ said Aneta Wilkinson, vice chairman of the commission. â€œIt 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.â€
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 â€” doing so at a rate more than twice the national
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 â€œimpossible to knowâ€ whether child welfare workers, prosecutors and judges are making different decisions.
â€œI 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,â€ Hendrick said.
However, Hendrick acknowledged it is â€œpossible that some workers, assistant district attorneys and judges may be viewing cases more narrowly.â€
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.
That commission reviewed the deaths or near-deaths of 82 Oklahoma children and found DHS had received 430 complaints of abuse and neglect in the months leading up to their tragedies. That averages to more than five complaints per child.
Constrained by the new law and stung by a 2008 federal court lawsuit that alleges Oklahoma foster children have suffered irreparable harm while in DHS custody, the agency has dramatically decreased the number of children being kept in shelters and foster homes.
That number reached a peak of about 12,500 in 2007, but is now down to 7,973 â€” the lowest since 1998, said Sheree Powell, DHS spokeswoman.
She attributed the reduction to a combination of factors, including law changes, a change in focus of DHS employees and an increased emphasis on quicker adoptions.
Evidence of drug abuse in a home is not sufficient to meet the imminent safety threat standard, Pow
With the new law in place, DHS has changed its focus to working more closely with families to change harmful behaviors and ways of thinking, Powell said.
Supportive services more often are recommended to parents while children are still in their homes. The number of preventive cases opened by DHS has increased from 459 in fiscal year 2007 to 1,132 in fiscal year 2010.
While many child welfare experts favor that approach, it only works when parents are willing to accept referrals and services are readily available.
With budget cuts, that could increasingly become a problem in Oklahoma.
As many as 900 Oklahomans are on a waiting list for residential substance abuse treatment, Mental Health Commissioner Terri White stated at a conference in October.
About 70 percent of adults in Oklahoma are not able to get treatment for mental illness and 77 percent of adults are not able to get substance abuse treatment, she said.
Hendrick said DHS enters into its own contracts for services, so he doesn't believe delays in obtaining services are a significant problem in most DHS referral cases.
Review reports on the deaths of Maggie and Tucker did not reveal whether DHS workers recommended services for either family, but Powell said she has seen documents indicating Maggie's mother was referred to parenting classes and other services while she was in the hospital giving birth.
On the day Maggie was born, DHS was informed that both the baby and her Bartlesville mother had tested positive for benzodiazepines, according to a report released by DHS this week. DHS was still looking into the complaint when Maggie died.
DHS had received several complaints concerning drug use in the home, including one alleging a family member died of an overdose there in June.
The month before Maggie was born, DHS received a report that her mother was â€œexcessively using prescription medication while pregnant.â€ DHS officials said that report was â€œscreened out because an unborn child does not meet the statutory definition of a child and therefore does not fall within the scope of child welfare involvement.â€
The extent to which legal protections extend to fetuses has been a controversial issue in Oklahoma.
In 1999, a Rogers County judge granted DHS custody of a â€œviable fetusâ€ in a case where a pregnant woman was accused of meth use that endangered her unborn child. The judge set the bail at $200,000. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the judge had overstepped her authority, stating â€œthe Oklahoma's Children's Code does not apply to a fetus, viable or nonviable.â€
However, in 2007 Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed a murder charge against another woman after her son was stillborn in 2004, with meth in his system. The woman, Theresa Lee Hernandez, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was released about a year later after reportedly turning her life around.