, Muskogee, OK

January 7, 2014

Arkansas woman: DHS didn’t do enough to stop death of brother

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)  —  An Arkansas woman complained to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday that despite the recent restructuring of the state Department of Human Services following a series of child deaths, the agency failed to protect her disabled brother, who died of pneumonia a year ago.

“They don’t need to wait until a child is dead to do something,” said Valerie Wood-Harber, 28, of Fayetteville.

A court-appointed panel of child welfare experts approved the restructuring of DHS after a number of high-profile cases in which children died during state custody. State officials praised the changes in 2012 and said Oklahoma had turned a corner in how it handled wards of the state.

But Wood-Harber said her pleas for help went unheeded just a few months later as her brother Quinten Wood, 15, suffered, she said, from neglect and abuse at their father’s home. Wood-Harber said she started calling DHS in mid-December 2012, eventually making 22 calls that were never returned after her other brother, Cameron Wood, then 14, told her that he was in charge of bathing, clothing, cooking and looking after Quinten. A message was left at a number listed for the father but was not returned.

Wood-Harber said Quinten died Jan. 4, 2013, of pneumonia.

“I hope Gov. Fallin sees that children, especially children with disabilities, I hope she sees that they need stronger advocates in the Capitol,” Wood-Harber said outside the Governor’s Office as she prepared to turn in hundreds of thousands of signatures and comments from an online petition calling for an investigation into DHS. “There needs to be a stronger system in place to help children and their families that have disabilities.”

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Sheree Powell said Quinten’s death has been “heartbreaking” on many levels. An investigation into the case along with the Oklahoma City Police Department, the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office and others is continuing. A report will be released once the investigation is complete.

In 2011, 5-year-old Serenity Dean was killed by her father, Sean Brooks, less than a month after the state removed her from foster care and put her in Brooks’ care. Brooks pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Two DHS workers were fired in the case and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of suppressing evidence that could have prevented the little girl’s return to her father.

In another high-profile case, the dismembered body of 3-year-old Erica Green, who was known as “Precious Doe,” was found in a wooded area in Missouri in April 28, 2001.

The child wasn’t identified until May 2005, when her mother, who had given birth to the child while in prison, and the mother’s husband were arrested in connection with the slaying in Muskogee. They were both sentenced to prison. A lawsuit settlement called for DHS, the Department of Corrections and a local hospital where the girl was born to develop procedures to ensure that babies born to prison inmates are referred to DHS for placement in a safe home.

Those deaths and others led to a class-action lawsuit that accused DHS of failing to find safe homes for some children and inadequately monitoring their safety because employees were overworked and poorly managed.