A child welfare worker and foster mother tried relentlessly to warn others to slow down placing 5-year-old Serenity Anne Deal with her father before she was killed, The Oklahoman has learned.
Child welfare worker Donald Wheeler killed himself
during the investigation of the girl's death. Wheeler, his supervisor and the foster mother, Donna Linn, of Chandler, all warned officials with the Department of Human Services
that the 5-year-old suffered while visiting Sean Devon Brooks and expressed concerns about placing her with Brooks permanently, according to emails, logs and other documentation obtained by The Oklahoman.
The documentation shows Wheeler and Linn expressed concerns to other DHS workers about Brooks after the child returned from visits with him with black eyes and bruises. It's not clear whether these concerns were passed on to a judge and a prosecutor involved in the case, although the agency has said both knew of the black eyes.
Wheeler shared the concerns with Jennifer Shawn, a DHS supervisor in Pottawatomie County, in an email March 17.
Shawn and Randy Lack, who worked for Shawn and was the primary caseworker, were in the process of being fired last week, according to sources close to the case who spoke to The Oklahoman on condition their names not be used. Lack also posted a message about being fired on his Facebook page.
In March and April, emails about the case between Lack, Wheeler, Linn, Shawn and Priest show that workers from Lincoln County wanted to slow the reunification, while Pottawatomie County workers wanted it hurried.
“Wisdom would dictate that we as an agency be cautious,” Wheeler wrote in an email to Shawn.
He gave 10 detailed reasons why they should slow down placing Serenity with her father, including that he had been arrested on a complaint of driving without a license, failed to take his daughter to the doctor when injured, and was yelling at and spanking the girl.
Linn, Serenity's foster mother, sent emails to Lack expressing much of the same concerns and suggesting the girl be placed with a great-aunt and great-uncle who had continued to maintain a close relationship to her.
Linn said Brooks was charming and clean-cut but was rough father material. She kept meticulous logs of his visits and contact with Serenity. She shared the logs with Wheeler.
Linn's logs show Brooks often showed up late for visits and made excuses to cancel visits. Brooks wasn't washing Serenity's hair during her visits and, as a result, the girl contracted bacteria that caused her hair to fall out
, she said.
Linn said she started suspecting abuse when Brooks brought Serenity home Jan. 2 with a black eye after a supposed extended visit with his family in Texas. She said both claimed she ran into a door. Serenity returned from her next visit with Brooks on Jan. 21 with two black eyes and bruises on her head and shoulders, Linn said.
Brooks later told workers he dropped Serenity while taking her out of his car.
“I do not believe he dropped her one time on a flat surface. She looks like she's been thrown into the dash/windshield of a car,”
Linn wrote in her log Jan. 21.
For two months, between Jan. 22 and March 23, Brooks made no effort to contact Serenity, even by telephone
, according to the log. His visitation had been suspended while her injuries were investigated, although no one could say for sure it was abuse, DHS records show.
Serenity's attitude toward her father changed after that.
“Explained to Serenity that DHS will eventually set up more visits with Dad — she began to cry and said she never wanted to go
with him,” Linn wrote on Feb. 4.
Feb. 14: “The mention of his name makes her nervous and the mention of visits brings tears.”
On March 15, Linn sent an email to Lack with several of her concerns. Shawn responded the following day, saying it was their intention to place Serenity with her father “very soon.”
“I think the main issue we are dealing with is the department and the court system can drive people nuts
,” Shawn wrote back. “I think it is apparent in the documentation during this last investigation that there is a bias against Sean.”
She said that from then on, Brooks would be communicating solely with Randy Lack.
“While I understand your concerns and give them value, we are and will continue looking out for Serenity's best interest,” Shawn wrote.
Priest responded in a March 21 email backing up the concerns of Wheeler and Linn and asking her to re-examine their reasons for worry.
Despite the documented concerns about Brooks' ability to parent, DHS officials in Pottawatomie County allowed Brooks to start visiting Serenity again in April. By May 11, she was living full-time with him and, on June 4, she was killed.
Wheeler, 64, of Chandler had worked for DHS since 1981. Co-workers say he was a staunch advocate for children and was almost obsessive about documenting every turn in a case.
He made photograph collages of each child and included them in his file. He passed copies of those collages on to judges, prosecutors and others working with the child to drive home the idea they weren't just a case, but a living, breathing person, Priest said.
Wheeler killed himself July 13, two days after investigators from the Office of Inspector General questioned him at his home.
Priest spoke with Wheeler after authorities left his home. Wheeler was shaken and didn't seem his normal, relentless self, he said.
“I think that's what drove him over the edge,” Priest said. “He dedicated his entire life to helping kids, and they treated him like a criminal.”
He said investigators took Wheeler's cellphone, computer and other items. They made him think he was going to lose his job or possibly go to jail, Priest said.
Wheeler told Linn the same thing.
“He said ‘They're going to fire me — they're going to pin it on me,'” Linn said.
Linn has temporarily closed her home to foster children. She said she's having trouble stomaching working with a system that failed Serenity and Wheeler.
“He killed himself because he thought everything that was important to him was going to be taken away,” Linn said. “Donald Wheeler was not to blame in this.”