Here's hoping that as the Oklahoma Department of Human Services continues to adapt to new leadership and ongoing reform efforts, we hear fewer and fewer stories like that of 6-year-old Alexis Morris.
In September 2009, Alexis was killed while living in the home of her father and stepmother in Shawnee. A federal lawsuit settled by the state last week alleged that DHS failed to remove Alexis and her brother, Jordan, from an abusive home despite repeated reports of problems.
Testimony at the stepmother's trial last year showed that in the nearly two years Alexis and Jordan lived with her, there were 17 referrals to the DHS office in Pottawatomie County regarding the two. A DHS worker from another county who reviewed the referrals testified that they weren't truly looked into.
The Pottawatomie County office, and DHS in general, came away looking bad. Plaintiffs alleged a DHS worker didn't properly do her job because she was a friend of the father's sister, who at the time worked for DHS. The agency, before settling, argued that its case workers “were within the scope of their employment and followed agency protocol and policy in their investigations ...” Seriously?
Two of the stepmother's own children had previously died in her care. Testimony showed that the day Alexis died, the woman held the girl by the ankles and slammed her head to the floor. Jordan said the stepmother at times forced his head underwater in a toilet, and duct taped his hands, feet and mouth until he went to sleep.
The stepmother was convicted of child abuse and is now serving life in prison plus 25 years. Under the $350,000 settlement, Jordan and his mother will each receive $86,779. The three plaintiffs attorneys will split $176,440 — more than half the settlement. As we said, the fewer of these stories going forward, the better.