Bartlesville Infant's Death Adds Fuel To Federal Lawsuit Against Oklahoma's DHS
Ashli Sims, News On 6
BARTLESVILLE, Oklahoma – The death of a ten-day-old Washington County baby has been thrust into the middle of a federal class action lawsuit.
Maggie May Trammel was found dead in a washing machine on November 4, 2010. Her mother, 26-year-old Lyndsey Fiddler, has been charged with felony child neglect in her death.
Oklahoma's Department of Human Services says it's getting better and that it has a federal review and the numbers to back it up. The organization suing the agency says the numbers are misleading and Maggie May's death could prove it.
DHS was contacted six different times about Fiddler, knew about her drug use, and a DHS investigation was still open when Maggie May died.
"Don't you want to know? Wouldn't a reasonable person want to know what happened in this case?" said Paul DeMurro, plaintiff's attorney.
DHS claims Maggie May's case shouldn't be included in the federal lawsuit, because she was never in DHS custody.
Attorneys for Children's Rights say how and why DHS decided not to remove Maggie May from her home speaks to a broader issue.
"Why didn't you take this child into state custody?" DeMurro asked. "And if this child is an example of how you're conducting your assessments than we have a major problem."
DHS has touted their success in slashing how many children are in state custody, reducing their numbers from more than 11,000 three years ago to about 7,900.
But Children's Rights says the rates of abuse haven't substantially changed but the way DHS does business has. They claim DHS is screening out more cases, rejecting 46 percent of complaints three years ago to cutting out almost 56 percent now.
Federal data says the rate is more like 54 percent, but that's still way above the national average.
Sheree Powell, a DHS spokeswoman, said 36 percent of calls to the agency's hotline were screened out because the "information given by the caller did not meet statutory definitions of abuse or neglect." Powell said 20 percent of calls were screened out because they were duplicates and all other calls to the hotline were "either referred for assessments or investigations."
Children's Rights also claims DHS is doing more assessments instead of the more rigorous investigations. DHS assessments have doubled, investigations have dropped in half.
In a statement to News On 6 Tuesday, DHS said:
"Safety of children is first and foremost in everything we do. Based on the information received to the hotlines, some complaint calls may not warrant a full investigation which is why an assessment may be conducted. During assessments, workers always have the option to refer cases for investigation. Anytime workers see signs of abuse or neglect, whether it's during an assessment or investigation, action is taken. Our assessment process can involve setting up a family meeting where we bring in other family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. to help protect the child. What really makes a difference in the safety of children is getting more people involved in watching over and caring for children."
DHS says Children's Rights is attacking them for doing exactly what they're supposed to do, cut down on the number of children removed from their families.
DHS says the data proves the agency is shrinking the amount of kids in state custody the safe way.
The rate of repeat maltreatment of children has nearly been cut in half recent years. The rate of repeat maltreatment was 9.4 percent in 2007. That number dropped to 5.9 percent in 2010. But children are still reentering the system at the same rate.