TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A lawsuit claiming three Oklahoma Department of Human Services workers contributed to the conditions that led to a 2-year-old girl’s death has been allowed to move forward by an appeals court.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the DHS workers accused in Lance Briggs’ lawsuit are eligible to be sued.
Briggs sued DHS employees Kristal Johnson, Yolanda Hunter and David Burgess along with another youth services agency in 2006, claiming they discouraged the reporting of child abuse leading up to the death of Kelsey Smith-Briggs.
“This allows us the opportunity ... to begin questioning those people who we feel are responsible for what happened to little Kelsey,” said Joe White, an attorney for Briggs.
Kelsey’s mother, Raye Dawn Smith of Meeker, was convicted of enabling child abuse and sentenced in September to 27 years in prison. Smith’s ex-husband, Michael Porter, also of Meeker, is serving 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to enabling child abuse.
Kelsey was taken away from Smith and placed in DHS custody in January 2005 after the agency concluded that she had suffered broken bones and bruises while in Smith’s care. However, the girl continued to suffer injuries during unsupervised visits with Smith leading up to her death in October 2005.
Kelsey’s death led to an Oklahoma law bearing her name that improved training of court-appointed child advocates and makes judges more accountable for their rulings in child-placement cases.
Johnson, Hunter and Burgess — all workers in the Lincoln County DHS office — had sought immunity from the lawsuit, claiming Briggs had failed to allege facts demonstrating that affirmative conduct on their part created or increased the danger to Kelsey.
The three also claimed that Briggs’ lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, did not meet legal standards for a claim that government employees created the danger resulting in injury.
DHS Assistant General Counsel Joseph Strealy said the agency could still ask a judge in Oklahoma City to grant immunity to the three workers. Strealy said DHS has not decided whether it will ask the appeals court to reconsider the ruling.
Briggs’ lawsuit also lists Eastern Oklahoma Youth Services Inc. as a defendant. Strealy said DHS contracted with Eastern Oklahoma Youth Services to visit Smith’s home.
Briggs’ lawsuit alleges that Lynch and Bonner instructed at least one person to stop reporting ongoing abuse against Kelsey.