The Law Blog of Oklahoma

Infant Deaths Prompts Review of DHS Policies

Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) has long been besieged with complaints that the agency is not doing right by Oklahoma's neglected and abused children. Several deaths at the hands of abusive parents with a history of abuse led to questions about the agency's effectiveness in following up on abuse complaints and its decision-making in returning children to abusive homes. In return, the agency became the subject of numerous federal lawsuits, and, as a result, made some significant changes, but the agency still struggles in light of significant budget cuts thanks to Oklahoma's dismal budget failure.

Now, the Oklahoma Commission on Children has reviewed the cases of nine drug-exposed newborns in 2016. These babies and/or their mothers tested positive for drugs at birth, or the mothers self-reported using drugs during pregnancy. Of the nine babies whose cases were reviewed, five--more than half--were dead within six months of being born.

In four of those five cases, DHS was able to substantiate child neglect. For example, one baby, who was only two months old when she died, was found in an unsafe crib that was full of pillows and stuffed animals. Such conditions can easily lead to infant suffocation. And while the unsafe crib may have been the cause of the child's death, investigators also noted methamphetamine, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia within reach of three other children in the home.

Despite knowing that the baby tested positive for methamphetamine at birth, and despite the mother's admission that she had smoked marijuana the week before the baby was born, even though there was a significant history of DHS complaints against the mother, DHS allowed the newborn to go home from the hospital with her mother two days after she was born.

Even prior to the Commission's review, DHS says, it began implementing changes that would clarify whether or not a drug-exposed newborn would be able to leave the hospital with his or her parents. 

Jami Ledoux, director of DHS Child Welfare Services, says that the agency looked at the disconnect between the intent of the policy and the practice in the field, and decided to clarify policies and implement greater training on drug-addicted newborns and leaving the child in the care of drug-addicted parents. She says that the agency's policy in these cases is now "very clear that a person responsible for the child on methamphetamines or stimulants is unable to provide basic care for the infant or child."

Ledoux says the agency will implement "Child Safety Meetings" in which the parents meet with Child Protective Services and other caregivers to determine what is needed to keep the child safe. In some cases, a newborn may be able to go home with a drug-addicted mother if there is another responsible adult in the home to keep the baby safe. In other cases, a mother may be referred to a drug rehabilitation program that will allow her to bring her infant with her. If there is no way the child will be safe with his or her drug-addicted parent, then DHS may take custody of the child. 

Oklahoma has a high rate of drug abuse. The state also has high rates of child neglect and abuse. Hopefully, the new policies enacted by DHS in light of early death of drug-exposed newborns will save lives.

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