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CHILD ABUSE;

OLR Research Report


October 27, 2009

 

2009-R-0362

COMPARISON OF CHILD PROTECTION

By: Susan Price, Senior Legislative Attorney

You asked us to compare Oklahoma's Kelsey Smith-Briggs Child Protection Reform Act with Connecticut's child protection laws.

SUMMARY

Oklahoma's Kelsey Smith-Briggs Child Protection Reform Act (HB 2840 (2006)) added provisions in state child welfare laws that:

1. prohibit judges from ordering the child welfare agency to place a child committed to the agency's custody with a specific caretaker;

2. require judges to stay their placement orders for at least 24 hours when either the attorney representing the agency or the agency's head indicates that implementing the court's order immediately will place a child at risk of serious injury;

3. require judges to use uniform forms for their orders that include space for noting recommendations made by those who appeared at the hearing;

4. create a performance-based compensation plan for child welfare workers;

5. require training for certain volunteers (court-appointed special advocates or CASAs) who investigate child protection matters and make court recommendations about a child's best interests, including where he or she should be placed;

6. when it appears that a child has been the victim of criminal abuse, authorize a judge or the head of the child protection agency to ask the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation for assistance; and

7. establish the 20-member Oklahoma Children and Juvenile Law Reform Committee to undertake a thorough study and recommend revisions and recodification of state laws applicable to children and juveniles.

Connecticut statutes do not contain most of these provisions, but some are mandated by agency policy or custom.

BACKGROUND

Kelsey Smith-Briggs, for whom the Oklahoma law is named, was a two-year old child who died in October 2005 as the result of blunt force trauma to her abdomen. It is widely believed that the perpetrator was her stepfather, as she was alone in his care when the incident occurred. In the seven months before her death, the state's child welfare agency the Department of Human Services. (DHS) received at least 10 reports of suspected abuse. Reported injuries included a broken collar bone, two broken legs, and multiple bruises and bumps on various parts of her head and body. The mother maintained that the injuries were accidental.

DHS workers observed the interaction between mother and child or spoke with the mother on the telephone at least 12 times during that seven month period. They concluded that while several of the reports were duplications, three were substantiated: reports made in (1) January 2005 involving abrasions, contusions, and a broken collarbone, attributed to abuse or failure to protect by her mother or stepfather; (2) in March 2005, involving multiple bruises and a closed head injury, attributed to her mother; (3) April 2005, involving bilateral broken tibias, which DHS concluded were committed by an unknown abuser (the injuries apparently occurred while the child was living with the paternal grandmother); and (4) also April, injuries to Kelsey's nose and right eye, attributed to a parent's failure to protect her.

DHS apparently did not make findings about the final injury that caused the child's death, perhaps because the stepfather and mother were arrested and charged with (1) murder and (2) criminal abuse and failure to protect, respectively. The stepfather accepted a plea bargain and was convicted of failure to protect. He is now serving a 28 year prison term. The mother was convicted of failure to protect and is now serving 27 years.

The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth Juvenile System Oversight Office, which is similar to Connecticut's Child Fatality Review Panel, investigated this high-profile case and issued a comprehensive report. That report is the primary source of information in this report.

Court Proceedings

The family court held at least 10 hearings between late January and September 2005 about the resolution of the abuse and neglect claims and who should have custody of Kelsey. Initially, the paternal grandparents were granted temporary guardianship with limited, supervised visitation for Kelsey's. Later on, custody was transferred to the maternal grandmother and the mother had liberal, unsupervised visitation. A court-appointed special advocate (CASA) who was to speak in Kelsey's best interests, stated at each hearing that the child should be returned to the mother. The attorney for DHS took the position that she remain committed to DHS with liberal, unsupervised visitation with her mother. Visitation in her mother's home was contingent on the stepfather not being present.

At the final hearing, the paternal grandmother argued that guardianship should be transferred to her. The mother, stepfather, and CASA asked that the commitment be revoked and Kelsey be returned home. At the final hearing, the judge ordered that Kelsey be returned to her mother under DHS supervision, with monthly visitation with the paternal grandparents. He denied the grandmother's petition for guardianship. The next hearing was to be held in January, 2006, but Kelsey died the previous October.

Public Response

The case was highly publicized; there are still several websites dedicated to Kelsey Smith-Briggs. The Oklahoma legislature was heavily lobbied to enact legislation that advocates contended would prevent another death.

Table 1 compares the Oklahoma bill with Connecticut's rules and customs.

Table 1: Comparison of Oklahoma and Connecticut Laws

Provision

Oklahoma

Connecticut

Prohibits judges from ordering DHS to place a committed child in a specific placement

Yes

10 O.S. 7003 6.2(C)

Judges routinely order specific placements in contested cases

Requires judges to stay placement orders for at least 24 hours when an agency head or attorney general states that immediate implementation will place child at risk of serious injury

Yes

10 O.S. 7003-6.2A

Such actions are permissive, not mandatory

Requires judges to use uniform forms for their order that include a space for memorializing each hearing participant's position

Yes

10 O.S. 7003-4.31

No, but the contents of court rulings include this information

Sets up a performance-based compensation program for full-time child welfare specialists

Yes

HB 2840 7

No. Compensation is set by union contract

Requires training for CASA volunteers who investigate make court recommendations about the child's best interest

Yes

10 O.S. 7003.7

CASAs are rarely used; paid guardians ad litem must complete training under the auspices of the chief child protection attorney

Authorizes judges or the DHS head to ask the state's bureau of investigation to assist in cases when criminal injury or child sexual abuse is suspected

Yes

10 710.6(K) O.S.

Yes

Sets up a mediation program for disputes between the department and foster parents

Yes

10 O.S. 601.6

Yes, by court policy

Establishes the 20-member Oklahoma Children and Juvenile Law Reform Committee to undertake a thorough study and recommend revisions and recodification of state laws applicable to children and youth

Yes

HB 2840 9-14

Partly. The Juvenile Justice Policy and Operations Coordinating Council has recently examined juvenile justice statutes and recommended changes.

The legislature's Program Review and Investigation Committee has recently reviewed the child welfare agency charge and made recommendations to the legislature

SP:ts