Investigating a serious and immediate threat to abused and neglected kids’ lives

maggie_may_bwMaggie May Trammel was just 10 days old last November when her mother, Lyndsey Fiddler, a 26-year-old Oklahoma woman with a history of substance abuse problems, loaded her into a washing machine with a pile of clothes, started the machine, and subsequently passed out.

Maggie May was in the washing machine for as long as 40 minutes before her lifeless body was found.

Over the previous two years, Ms. Fiddler had been the subject of no fewer than six referrals to Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services for possible child abuse or neglect related to her drug use. Once, a relative died of a drug overdose in the house while Ms. Fiddler’s other children were upstairs.

But the Oklahoma Department of Human Services conducted not a single child abuse investigation of the family prior to Maggie May’s horrific death — opting instead for less rigorous assessments intended for cases where the reported abuse or neglect “does not constitute a serious and immediate threat.”

And now Oklahoma officials have asked a federal judge to prevent Children’s Rights from looking into Maggie May’s case to find out whether it was mishandled — and whether the state child welfare agency’s increasing emphasis on assessments over full abuse investigations may be endangering the lives of many more children.

When we launched a massive campaign nearly three years ago to reform Oklahoma’s dysfunctional child welfare system on behalf of more than 10,000 vulnerable children statewide, the state ranked among the most dangerous in the nation on several measures.

The state had one of the three highest rates of child maltreatment in state-supervised foster homes, and excessively large caseloads among the child welfare workers responsible for monitoring the safety of vulnerable children were preventing them from adequately investigating reports of abuse and neglect.

Earlier this week, Oklahoma officials trumpeted major declines over the past few years in the number of child maltreatment cases they’ve verified and the number of children the state takes into protective custody. They say they’ve been doing a better job of supporting vulnerable families and getting children help before they suffer maltreatment severe enough to warrant foster care.

For the sake of Oklahoma’s abused and neglected children, we hope that’s true. But Maggie May Trammel’s case — and the vast majority of the evidence we’ve seen in our investigation of the Oklahoma child welfare system — suggests that there is reason to suspect otherwise.

Over the past two years, Oklahoma has cut investigations of child abuse and neglect allegations by more than half as it has more than doubled its use of assessments. In Maggie May’s case, the state child welfare system appears to have missed important warning signs about “serious and immediate threats” to the newborn girl’s safety.

For the sake of Oklahoma’s abused and neglected children, it is vital that we find out what else the system is missing — and that we identify and fix the problems throughout the system that pose a serious and immediate threat to too many other children’s lives.