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DHS Investigation in Serenity Deal Case

Filed by Michael Cross in Feature, Local News, News.
September 14, 2011

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The State Department of Human Services is wrapping up an investigation of employees who were suspended after the death of a five-year-old early in the summer.

Serenity Deal died in June from a beating while in the custody of her father.

She was placed in her father’s care a month earlier under the recommendation of DHS, and he now faces charges in her murder.

The question now is did Serenity’s death occur because of misconduct and neglect from employees or a problem with policies at DHS.

The news of 5-year-old Serenity Deal’s death made national news back in June.

It also put a spot light on the Department of Human Services who chose to suspend four of its employees.

The supervisor on Deal’s case, Jennifer Shawn, says she understands why the agency suspended her after the public outcry.

“They’re getting a lot of pressure, political pressure, I think they’re being pressured to do something, and I just think that people outside the agency need to start looking at the agency and how they do things, how they run things.”

DHS heard arguments from Shawn and Serenity’s case worker Randy Lack in the last few weeks.

Now, Lack says DHS is purposely withholding records in Serenity Deal’s case which would exonerate them.

“The decision came from two levels above even the supervisory position. It went above the supervisor I had, above our county director to the area liaison who made the decision to send her home.”

DHS got involved in the case after her mother was arrested for molesting a boy.

A month before her death, DHS placed Serenity in the custody of 31-year-old Sean Brooks, a sperm donor who learned of Serenity’s existence when she was three.

The decision was made even though Serenity was injured twice in January during overnight visits with Brooks.

However, Shawn contends medical professionals determined those injuries were accidental.

“People have spoken out, Serenity’s former foster mother. Even she at the time that Serenity went home, or Lincoln County staff believe that the injuries that she suffered at the end of January were intentional.”

They say its policy and indeed state law to put the child into the care of a non-offending parent.

That’s not exactly true according to Mark Nitta, the program manager for Practice Model Implementation at DHS.

“By all means we do want to explore all possible placements for children including any absent parent which could include a mother and a father; however, we also need to do a thorough assessment to insure safety upon any decisions being made for placement.”

He says assessments include interviews with those around the parent as well as case workers visiting the home on a regular basis to ensure the safety of the child.

The incident resulted in cries from state lawmakers and officials for an investigation into agency practices which might have resulted in Serenity’s death.

Governor Fallin brought up the case while introducing two new members of the commission that will oversee the agency.

Fallin says a full investigation should be done especially if there was any cover-up, and there should be ramifications for any failure by the agency or employees.

“If there were people who did not follow procedures, who might have even not told the whole factual side of things going on then we need to know that, and that’s what the investigation will show us. One loss of life is unacceptable.”

Serenity’s death also got the attention of independent groups who deal with children, families and DHS.

The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy agrees losing a child is horrible, but widespread abuse and neglect are a reality in Oklahoma.

Executive Director Linda Terrell says she hopes an investigation will provide lessons to lawmakers and DHS to prevent it from happening again.

“Maybe we can really as a state focus on prevention. Which was threatened to be eliminated last year from our state budget and if we don’t decide to focus on prevention these sorts of situations are going to continue to arise?”

The Department of Human Services couldn’t talk about the case directly, but Communications Coordinator Sheree Powell says the department’s policies are sound.

“It doesn’t mean it’s a systematic issue. It doesn’t mean that all the policies and laws need to change, that we just need to throw everything out and start over. It doesn’t mean that. It just means that maybe we take a look at what people’s interpretations were. Why did they have the understanding that they did.”

Powell says DHS deals with thousands of kids across Oklahoma.

She admits agency employees do a very hard job with little pay or reward.

“Would you want to take on a job where if you made a mistake that something tragic happens, your name winds up in the paper you get blasted, that’s a lot to take on for a worker?”

Randy Lack admits he’s had trouble even leaving his house for fear of what others might say about the Serenity Deal case.

Two other employees were suspended.

One resigned and another committed suicide.

Lack and Shawn’s attorneys have issued open records requests for reports on Deal’s placement which they say were not used in the investigation.

The agency is expected to make a ruling on the status of the employees over the next two weeks.

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