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 rellis@opubco.com Published: December 12, 2010
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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 — 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, Powell said. Drug abuse would have to be coupled with something else — like driving a child in a car while under the influence of drugs or leaving a syringe within reach of a toddler, in order to constitute an immediate threat, officials said.

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 “excessively using prescription medication while pregnant.” DHS officials said that report was “screened 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.”

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 “viable fetus” 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 “the Oklahoma's Children's Code does not apply to a fetus, viable or nonviable.”

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.


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