The killing of a 7-year-old girl whose family had frequent contact with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services led the incoming House speaker on Thursday to place the state’s child abuse and neglect review system under new scrutiny.
House Speaker-designate Kris Steele questioned several state child abuse experts during an interim legislative study prompted by the death of 7-year-old Aja Johnson. The girl and her stepfather, Lester Hobbs, disappeared after Aja’s mother, Tonya Hobbs, was found dead Jan. 24 inside Hobbs’ motor home in Geronimo. Their bodies were discovered on March 29 in a heavily wooded area near Norman.
“The thing that stood out to me is that there is a long track record of DHS involvement in the life of Aja and her family,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “Did the state of Oklahoma do everything possible to try and protect this child? I’m not insinuating that did not occur. I’m just wanting to make sure.”
A report on Aja’s death by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth shows the girl’s family had nine referrals to DHS in the three years leading to her death, including reported abuse by Hobbs, an ex-convict who had served time in prison for assault and battery with a deadly weapon.
DHS officials said they are prohibited by law from discussing the Aja Johnson case specifically, but that any case that ends with the death of a child is carefully scrutinized by a number of different agencies.
“There are so many checks and balances, both internally and with other partners in the state,” said DHS spokeswoman Beth Scott. “When we talk about safety of a child, there’s a whole group at the table.”
Steele said he’s considering legislation for next session that would require more background checks on family members before children are placed in a home, and more sharing of information between child welfare agencies and law enforcement. He said he’s also interested in examining what other options DHS explores when family reunification attempts fail.
Among those who testified during Thursday’s study before the House Human Services Committee were Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the state’s District Attorneys Council.
Baggett said a problem cited by prosecutors is the high turnover rate and lack of experience among child welfare workers, who he said are often underpaid and overworked.
“There’s only so much of that they can stand,” Baggett said. “They burn out pretty quick.”
Richard Smothermon, district attorney for Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties, urged more collaboration between law enforcement and child welfare workers.
“There’s a great deal of hesitancy between those two entities,” Smothermon said.
Smothermon prosecuted a Meeker couple for the 2005 child abuse death of 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs, a case that led to numerous changes in DHS policies regarding child abuse and neglect investigations.