The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a measure that would reform how the state Department of Human Services and the courts handle child abuse cases in Oklahoma. The measure, House Bill 2840, is known as the Kelsey Smith-Briggs Child Protection Reform Act, named for a two-year-old victim of child abuse.
Child welfare workers had been monitoring Kelsey’s case, but she died of blunt force trauma last October after a judge returned the child to her mother and step-father. Kelsey’s step-father, Michael Lee Porter, has been charged with first-degree murder, while her mother, Rae Dawn Smith, faces charges of neglect and enabling abuse.
Senator Harry Coates, co-author of the bill, presented the measure in committee.
“This is a heart-breaking case. Kelsey needed help and protection and the system failed her,” said Coates, R-Seminole. “But we have an opportunity to reform and strengthen the system—that’s what this bill will do.”
HB 2840 would establish stronger review procedures allowing greater input by those acting as advocates for a child’s health, safety and welfare. The measure would give judges and DHS the authority to request investigative resources from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The legislation would also require Court Appointed Special Advocates to meet national training standards.
“In the year of 2004, Oklahoma lost 51 children to child abuse. Yet it took the death of a two-year-old child in October of 2005, to get everyone’s attention,” said Kathie Briggs, Kelsey’s paternal grandmother. “She has made us aware that the present laws in our state are inadequate for the protection of our children…I believe if this had been law prior to Kelsey’s case she might still be here today.”
Coates said the District Attorneys Council and others have requested some changes to the bill. He said while he would be agreeable to amendments that would improve the language, he would guard against any proposals that could weaken the legislation. Coates said the measure should be ready for a floor vote within the next two to three weeks.