The Edmond Sun

Local News

October 17, 2011

DHS: New law could delay family reunification

EDMOND — A new law will require more extensive background checks on all adults living in homes receiving children from state custody as part of the reunification process.

However, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services has concerns related to staffing and potential delays in the reunification process.

House Bill 2136, by House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, which passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, was signed by Gov. Mary Fallin on May 17. It becomes law on Nov. 1.

The law, designed to ensure children are placed in safe environments when they leave state custody, will:

• Require background checks on all adults living in homes that children in state custody may be placed into as part of a reunification with their family or legal guardian.

• Make more records about a child’s past available to child welfare officials, courts and families.

• Require child welfare officials to investigate all abuse or neglect complaints made against those who have had three or more past abuse or neglect complaints made against them.

Steele said background checks are a common-sense step society can take to prevent children from being placed into at-risk situations when the state reunites them with their families. Steele said the work done by child welfare officials is vitally important, and lawmakers wanted to make sure they have the right tools.

The proposals in the bill are the result of a legislative interim study last year that focused on the child abuse and neglect review system used by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Steele ordered the study following the disappearance and subsequent death last year of a 7-year-old Oklahoma girl who had been in state custody shortly before her death.

Aja Johnson, 7, lived with her mother Tonya Hobbs and her stepfather Lester Hobbs.  

“No one can say for sure if a background check or the other reforms in this bill would have prevented what happened to Aja, but I believe that going forward these are the right policies for the state to adopt,” Steele said.

Debra Martin, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said the law will add time to workers’ duties and no additional staff were allocated.

“Our greatest concern is the potential delays in reunification waiting on fingerprint results,” Martin said.

The study found background checks were not always being performed on the adults who were living in homes that children in state custody were being placed into by state child welfare officials.

In May 2007 the Oklahoma Department of Human Services returned Aja and a sibling to the Hobbs’ home for trial reunification, according to the review. The agency had received nine reports alleging abuse and/or neglect; the ninth report was received in January 2010.

That same month Tonya Hobbs was found dead inside her RV parked at 203 Minnesota in Geronimo. Hobbs and her daughter were visiting Hobbs’ estranged husband at his sister’s home; she had filed a protective order months before she was murdered. Aja was missing.  

During the ensuing manhunt, which received widespread press coverage, no leads surfaced. In March 2010, the bodies of Aja and Lester Hobbs were found in a car about a mile from where Hobbs once lived in rural Norman.

marks@edmondsun.com | 341-2121, ext. 108

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