Late last year, the media covered the disappearance of darling little Oakley Carlson, a five-year-old child from Grays Harbor County who had recently been returned to her parents after Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (i.e., Child Protective Services) completed their investigation.

Now, over a year after the last time, she was seen alive, police investigators are admitting that she is assumed dead, her parents have been sentenced for child endangerment affecting her siblings, and DCYF will reveal no further details about what went wrong in Oakley’s case.

Austin Jenkins, who has done great reporting on DCYF, published yesterday about how DCYF’s secrecy raises concerns about DCYF’s handling of child abuse claims:

[Her former foster mother] said the reunification in late 2019 felt rushed. She also questioned whether DCYF — in the midst of the COVID pandemic — adequately monitored the family after reunification, and whether the agency followed up when she reported additional concerns to caseworkers and Child Protective Services about Oakley.

Under Washington State law, DCYF must investigate all child abuse or neglect allegations brought to its attention. The agency is subject to civil liability for harm caused by its failure to investigate, meaning when its investigation is biased or faulty and causes the child to remain in, return to, or move to a harmful home.

We also know, based on the State’s own reports, that the number of claims filed against DCYF for harmful placements has steadily risen over the last decade. This trend suggests that Oakley’s story—one where a child is returned to an abusive or neglectful home too quickly without adequate resources to ensure her safety—is sadly not unique.

This legal reality – where DCYF is required to investigate child abuse and subject to civil liability for its failure to protect children in its charge – motivates the very secrecy Mr. Jenkins’ reports on. DCYF, in formal litigation and in Oakley’s case, tells the same story: We cannot release information about these children except under limited circumstances because of the child’s privacy concerns and ongoing investigations. But children like Oakley, who are likely to have been hurt by the adults in their lives and under DCYF’s purview, have no disinterested parties to look out for them.  

If you believe a child is not being adequately supported by DCYF and/or her parents during the course of a CPS investigation, you may be able to help by retaining a civil attorney who can investigate DCYF’s conduct and the child’s safety.