Oklahoma DHS reviews its drug policies after infant deaths
Paizlie Kay Rayne Forson tested positive for amphetamines, methamphetamines and marijuana the day she was born, but a DHS worker still allowed the infant's mother to take her home from the hospital in March 2016.
Two months later, Paizlie was dead, found unresponsive in her crib at an Ardmore mobile home park, wearing a onesie printed with the words "Sweet like Mommy".
Paizlie's cause of death was never determined. Sleeping in an unsafe crib with large stuffed animals and pillows may have been a contributing factor, but police also found baggies of methamphetamine, marijuana, a straw and pipes within reach of the other three children in the home, according to an oversight agency report.
Paizlie was one of at least five newborns in Oklahoma exposed to methamphetamine, heroin or other opiates who died within six months of leaving the hospital with a parent who was using drugs in 2016, according to the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
The Oklahoman obtained a copy of a commission letter sent to Oklahoma Department of Human Services Director Ed Lake in December warning of an "emerging trend" of DHS allowing drug-addicted mothers to take newborns home from the hospital.
The infants all died between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2016. The deaths were part of nine cases of drug-exposed newborns reviewed by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
Neglect findings substantiated
DHS substantiated findings of neglect in four of the five infant death cases.
In the nine cases reviewed by the oversight agency, the infants either tested positive for drugs at birth, or the mother either tested positive for drugs or self-reported using drugs during pregnancy.
"There appears to be a huge disconnect between the intent of the ... DHS policy and the actual practice in the field regarding assessment of the person responsible for the child ... who uses methamphetamines," Lisa Smith, the commission's executive director, wrote.
The oversight agency also criticized DHS for not coordinating with local district attorneys to seek court supervision or custody of drug-exposed infants in many cases.
DHS has stepped up its scrutiny of cases involving drug-exposed newborns over the past several months in response to the concerns, said Jami Ledoux, director of DHS Child Welfare Services.
"We took a really hard look at this and determined there were some changes we needed to make and do some work to clarify our policies," Ledoux said.
Child welfare workers have been seeing more of these cases as part of an increase in meth usage, as well as the ongoing opioid epidemic, she said.
DHS has provided additional training on drug-exposed newborns, as well as clarified its policies on leaving children in the care of a parent who is using serious drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine and PCP.
"Our policy is very clear that a person responsible for the child on methamphetamines or stimulants is unable to provide basic care for the infant or child," Ledoux said.
The agency is also doing more to communicate with local district attorneys in order to seek court supervision or custody of drug-exposed babies.
DHS has implemented a new process for evaluating the welfare of substance-exposed babies called a "Child Safety Meeting" that allows parents to sit down with Child Protective Services and other caregivers to decide what is needed to keep the child in a safe environment, Ledoux said.
"That whole process is enhancing our ability to make better safety decisions with the family," Ledoux said. "If a child is unsafe, we make joint decisions about what level of intervention that child needs."
In some instances, a child born to a mother who used drugs during pregnancy can stay in the home if there is another responsible parent that can provide care, Ledoux said. In other cases, there are some drug rehabilitation programs that allow a mother to bring her child with her to treatment.
Deaths preceded new plan
DHS had not fully rolled out its new program that includes Child Safety Meetings when the five infant deaths occurred in 2016, Director Ed Lake said in his official response to the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
"It is important to note that this relatively new collaborative process — a tool designed to aid in making the most appropriate safety decisions for a child — was not used in six of the nine cases reviewed ..." Lake said.
DHS hopes to prevent deaths like Paizlie's in the future through the new policies it has put into place.
"That case did not go through the collaborative decision making process," Ledoux said. "The whole hope of this is to make better safety decisions ... the best decision possible for the child."
By the time Paizlie died May 25, 2016, the child's mother, Victoria Dawn Pipes, had already been reported multiple times to DHS, according to an Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth oversight board that reviews child deaths.
Attempts to contact Pipes or her attorney for comment were unsuccessful.
Just two days after Paizlie was born, DHS received the last complaint about Pipes. The complaint claimed Pipes had used methamphetamine during her pregnancy and that there may have been an active meth lab in her home. DHS screened out the complaint, because the agency was already investigating after Paizlie tested positive for drugs shortly after birth.
Child Protective Services allowed the child to go home from the hospital with Pipes, but did conduct two follow up home visits.
Although Paizlie tested positive for methamphetamine at birth, her mother denied using any drugs except for marijuana during pregnancy, according to the oversight agency's report.
"Ms. Pipes also reportedly told the CPS worker that the positive methamphetamine result may have happened if someone added methamphetamine to the marijuana cigarette she smoked the week before Paizlie's birth," according to the report.
The day of Paizlie's death, police served a search warrant on Pipes' home and found methamphetamine and marijuana, records show.
Pipes later pleaded no contest to possession of methamphetamine and two felony counts of child neglect in Carter County District Court. Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday.
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said the agency is also trying to better educate parents about providing a safe sleeping space for infants. Sleeping in a crib with dangerous items such as toys and pillows that can cause suffocation may have contributed to Paizlie's death. DHS can provide portable bassinets and full-size cribs to parents in some cases.
"We are trying to address those unsafe sleep environments," Powell said. "Sadly, in little Paizlie's case, it was an unsafe sleep environment, but yes, there were also other extenuating circumstances."
Contributing: Staff Writer Jaclyn Cosgrove
Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›