Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Speaker calls on DHS to release Serenity Deal report

Speaker Kris Steele

OKLAHOMA CITY – House Speaker Kris Steele today called on the Department of Human Services to release its report on last month’s death of a five-year-old Oklahoma girl, Serenity Deal.
“DHS needs to make it a top priority to complete and release the findings of its investigation into Serenity’s tragic death,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “The agency’s duty to explain what happened should not be this complicated and time consuming. It’s time to give Serenity’s family and the public answers. The DHS status quo of excuses and delays is not sufficient.”
Serenity was beaten to death June 4. DHS officials had placed Serenity in her father’s care as part of a trial reunification despite having documented evidence that Serenity had been repeatedly injured while in his care in the past, according to a report by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
Serenity’s father has been charged with her murder.
DHS officials on June 15 told media outlets that the agency’s review of the case would be released the week of June 18. However, the report on the review has yet to be released. Further, the report was not delivered to the agency’s governing board, the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services, at its meeting today.
“In order to improve DHS and better protect Oklahoma’s children, we need to know the facts about what happens when the system fails,” Steele said. “Based on the information currently available, it seems likely that Serenity died because of a systematic breakdown. We must find out precisely what happened so we can correct the problem, but we can’t do that until DHS produces its report.”
Steele continued: “Child welfare workers have some of the toughest and most important jobs in state government. They do an admirable job under tough conditions every day. It is time for DHS leadership to identify what happened in Serenity’s case so welfare workers can be supported with effective direction and policies in the future.”
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, which serves as a watchdog over DHS, completed its report on Serenity’s death within ten days. It has been 52 days since Serenity died and no DHS report has been released.
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth report indicates there were major disagreements among DHS officials in Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties about whether Serenity should have been placed in her father’s custody.
“Oklahoma is well past the point of being simply ‘concerned’ about DHS. Something must change,” Steele said. “If this agency continues to fail to answer tough questions, the public will continue to wonder why DHS leadership seems so intent on dodging accountability. Until we see serious change, I will not hesitate to press for answers and solutions. The public and our most vulnerable citizens deserve nothing less.”
OKDHS Director Responds
Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) Director Howard Hendrick responded to criticism from House Speaker Kris Steele regarding the time the department is taking to prepare a detailed report on the death of five-year-old Serenity Deal.

“The Department will issue its report on the death of Serenity Deal when it has the information necessary to understand what different family members knew, what different workers knew, and when did they know it,” said Hendrick. “Without knowing what each person involved in the case knew, it would be premature to determine whether errors in judgment happened.”

The Deal case had multiple hearings before the Courts, said Hendrick. The department has requested and has been waiting on court transcripts which would detail the recommendations of the workers, supervisors, child’s attorney, parents’ attorneys, and district attorneys each time the child’s case was heard in court.

“This information is critical to the official report and will help detail the events surrounding this little girl’s life and those leading up to her death,” said Hendrick.

OKDHS is one part of a larger system that works together to protect children. All investigative reports and recommendations by child welfare workers are given to district attorneys who then take cases before judges.  Every child in state custody also has an independent attorney assigned to represent them and their interests in court.

“Until transcripts are reviewed, it is not possible to know what different persons knew and when they knew it,” said Hendrick.  “The transcripts have been requested multiple times.”

While the broad series of events have been reported in the report issued by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, the context of those events cannot be known until the court transcripts have been produced and analyzed, said Hendrick.

“No one intends a result like this one,” said Hendrick. “OKDHS child welfare workers do an excellent job of keeping children safe.  In a case where efforts were being made to keep a family together and family members had different opinions and workers had different information, assessing more information is necessary to complete the story.”
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