Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma DHS Workers: Policy Contributed to Girl's Death

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma DHS Workers: Policy Contributed to Girl's Death

Article excerpt

Two of the four state child welfare workers suspended over the beating death of 5-year-old Serenity Anne Deal said they have been treated unfairly by the state and blame the agency's child protective services practice model for contributing to her death.

In June, Deal died of head injuries after she began living with her father, Sean Brooks. Brooks has been charged with first-degree murder in the death; he has pleaded not guilty.

Deal was placed with Brooks after child welfare workers recommended the girl live with him. That recommendation was made after Deal's mother, Samantha Deal, was charged with sexually assaulting her.

Following Deal's death, Jennifer Shawn and Randy Lack, both child welfare specialists for the Department of Human Services, were placed on administrative leave with pay from their jobs, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Two other DHS workers, Wes Priest and Donald Wheeler, were also suspended.

Since their suspension, Shawn and Lack said they have been told by other DHS employees they would be fired because of the high- profile nature of the case.

"They need someone as a scapegoat," Shawn said. 'I think DHS is trying to get rid of us because of political pressure. That way they can show it is an individual worker's liability and not the agency's problem."

Shawn said neither she nor Lack approved placing Serenity Deal with her father, though Lack did confirm he made the initial recommendation that the girl be sent to the father.

"I was not the acting supervisor on that case," Shawn said. "And Randy didn't make the decision to reunify this child with its parent. He's the low man on the totem pole."

Lack said his initial recommendation was required by law.

"Because the investigation that Lincoln County (DHS office) completed, they did not confirm child abuse (on Brooks)," he said. "And service providers gave glowing recommendations of this parent (Brooks). That practice model. That was the policy."

Shawn said the final decision to send Serenity Deal to her father was made by state Field Office Director Larry Johnson.

"I voiced my concerns about the way they handled the case," Shawn said. "I emailed my superiors."

Both workers said the practice model for the child protective system doesn't give workers set guidelines and training, but instead provides tools that are ineffective.

"The practice model pushes the in-home and out-of-home safety plans, rather than taking children into DHS custody," Lack said. "What we have been told and trained is that the child is always better off in their own home. Always."

Shawn said the state's practice model doesn't consider what is in the best interest of the child, but instead, is an attempt to save the state money.

"The best interest of the child isn't being considered," she said. "DHS is pushing the practice model and supervision cases and family-centered services because that way the state won't have to take children into custody. …

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