With little planning and no sense of gravity or urgency, Oklahoma returns a helpless boy to an environment of brutal violence — and he pays for the state’s negligence with his life.
D.S. first came to the attention of Oklahoma child welfare officials when he was three years old, not long after his mother moved in with her boyfriend. The young child had a fractured skull, but that was just part of the reason hospital workers alerted CPS:
This was the boy’s fourth emergency room visit for a head injury in a year.
Despite that alarming fact — and the mother’s vague explanations for D.S.’s troubling medical history — state officials sent the boy home. They didn’t interview the doctor or the boy. They didn’t investigate the previous head injuries.
Only when they received two more referrals in the following 10 days — one following a doctor’s visit that revealed bruising all around D.S.’s genitals and on his thighs — did they finally take DS into state custody.
Eighteen months later, child welfare officials attempted to reunify D.S. with his mother and her boyfriend. Despite the huge risk of placing the boy back into an environment loaded with a history of violence and abuse, the agency continued taking a passive, disinterested approach in looking after the well-being of this helpless little boy.
As a national child welfare expert would later write in a scathing report on this and several other horrifying cases:
“No amount of anger management services, parenting classes, and family counseling would have made it safe to return a five-year-old to a caregiver or caregiver(s) who hurt him, or allowed him to be hurt, as badly as he had been before he was removed.”
A caseworker did visit the family’s home eight days after D.S. returned to it. But despite state policies requiring increased visitation in potentially stressful situations — which this surely was — it took more than a month before the caseworker followed up — with just a phone call.
And just one day after that phone call, D.S. was murdered. He suffered blunt force head trauma — another fracture to the skull — and multiple bruises and contusions all over his body.
The child welfare expert who reviewed D.S.’s case concluded that his death could have been prevented — just like those of at least four other children who perished in state custody between 2007 and 2009.
His report finds that Oklahoma’s badly dysfunctional child welfare system routinely fails the children it’s supposed to protect through its investigations. Thousands of children are at risk because of a lack of timeliness and thoroughness, extremely poor decision making, and an inability to protect children while allegations of abuse and neglect are being investigated.
In D.S.’s case, the system appeared to fail in every possible way.
It would be impossible to prevent every tragedy like this from ever occurring. But there is absolutely no reason why they should happen with the frequency that they do in Oklahoma — and we are fighting hard to get them under control.
In memory of D.S. – and in the names of thousands more abused and neglected children like him — we will press on until Oklahoma’s public officials undertake meaningful reform, fix the problems that endanger far too many children’s lives and well-being every day, and transform their child welfare system into one that provides all vulnerable kids with the protection and care they deserve.
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