Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oklahoma DHS governing board refuses special meeting on Serenity Deal death

Serenity Deal, 5, died in Oklahoma City after being placed with father by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

The governing board of the state's child-welfare agency has refused repeated requests to hold special meetings on the high-profile deaths of children in its care.

Steven Dow, of Tulsa, called for the special meetings. He is one of nine commissioners who oversee the state Department of Human Services.

He told The Oklahoman, “My calls for greater accountability and interest by the commission in even asking questions are met with a deafening silence. … I basically have gotten no response from most of the commissioners.”

Dow asked for special meetings after the 2010 death of Aja Johnson, 7, and the June death of Serenity Deal, 5.

He brought up five other children's deaths in one of his requests for a meeting about Serenity.

“Not once has the Commission discussed any of these horrific situations nor attempted to understand how our agency failed these children. Not once,” he wrote in an email to other commissioners.

“For a system to allow so many tragic deaths in such a short period of time is unconscionable. For us to not invite someone who has investigated the cases nor even ask our staff to explain what, from their perspective, happened is irresponsible and an utter dereliction of our duty to oversee the Department,” he wrote.

Dow said only one other commissioner, Anne Roberts, of Norman, agreed to a special meeting on Serenity.

Against a special meeting over Serenity was Commissioner Aneta Wilkinson, of Tulsa.

Wilkinson wrote in an email to Dow: “I firmly believe that DHS is handling this very unfortunate matter in the correct way. This terrible incident is not a system failure but involves the actions of individual people.

“Calling a special meeting at this time will only impede the investigation and disciplinary actions that are being implemented at this time. The proper role of the Commission is to determine policy. We are not and we should not be involved in personnel matters.”

Serenity died less than a month after she began living with her father full time in Oklahoma City at the recommendation of DHS workers.

The girl was placed with her father, Sean Devon Brooks, even though she was injured twice in January during overnight visits with him. DHS was involved because Serenity's mother had been accused of molesting a boy.

Brooks, who did not know he was the girl's father until she was 3, has been charged with first-degree murder.

DHS officials say child-welfare workers made mistakes in the girl's case. Four workers were put on administrative leave. One committed suicide. Another resigned. The other two are in the process of being fired.

Aja, 7, was killed in January 2010 by her stepfather, Lester Hobbs. Investigators said Hobbs killed the girl's mother in his motor home in Geronimo, left in her car with Aja, killed Aja and killed himself.

Aja was visiting her mother at the time of her death. Her father had temporary custody. DHS was criticized after her death because child-welfare workers earlier in her life had pushed for her to live with her mother and stepfather even though he was a felon and there were reports the stepfather abused her.