Did the system fail Oakley Carlson? 5-year-old Washington girl remains missing

As the search continues for 5-year-old Oakley Carlson, questions are being raised about potential shortfalls or missteps from the state agency that was meant to protect the little girl.

Starting at 7 months old, Oakley Carlson was in the care of her foster family until right before she turned three in late 2019 when she was eventually returned to her parents’ care, according to her foster family.

Now Carlson’s parents remain in police custody for investigation of manslaughter as the search continues for the missing five-year-old.

FOX 13 News has reached out to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) and has not been provided answers to some basic questions about Carlson’s care and placement these last few years. 

Oakley Carlson

Were there missteps or shortfalls in Carlson’s placement and care? Were red flags identified and subsequently investigated?

The Washington State Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds is an independent office that investigates complaints of abuse and neglect within the State child welfare system.

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Director Patrick Dowd was not able to comment on Carlson’s case but provided general information on standard procedures within the foster care system.

"The primary goal is reunification and making sure that parents have the opportunity to engage in remedial services that would address whatever parental deficiencies lead the child to enter state care," said Dowd.

Dowd said usually Child Protective Services (CPS) conducts an investigation before a child is removed from a parent’s care.

"If it reaches a point where the CPS worker believes the child is in imminent risk of harm and has been abused or neglected, then the worker would have to go to court and present that information to a judge," said Dowd. "Whereas law enforcement has the authority as part of their police powers, if they see that a child is in imminent risk of harm, they on their own initiative can take the child into protective custody. CPS workers can’t do that. So there’s that check and balance where they would need to go to court and convince a judge that a child would need to be removed from within a parent’s care."

RELATED: Where is Oakley Carlson? Search amps up for missing 5-year-old as parents remain uncooperative

Dowd said it’s not uncommon for a child to be in foster care for a period of one or two years, like Carlson, but said there are federal and state laws that require the court to look at the length of time a child is in out of home care. 

"At a certain point the court has to either order the Department to seek an alternative, permanent plan which could include termination of parental rights and adoption or make a finding that there is good cause to continue reunification efforts and not to pursue an alternative plan," said Dowd. "The harm from leaving the child in a possibly neglectful or abusive situation in the family’s home versus the trauma of removing the child and separation from parents and possibly siblings. That’s again a quandary and competing policy goals within our system."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Parents in custody for manslaughter, former foster parents plea for safe return of Oakville 5-year-old

Hope remains for Carlson’s safe return, but law enforcement said her disappearance is suspicious. 

"By state law, there are certain circumstances when there is a child fatality that occurs that is attributed to abuse her neglect and the family had a prior history with the child welfare system within the preceding 12 months that those cases receive an executive review," said Dowd. "It’s facilitated by the Department of Children, Youth and Families. It is comprised of a committee that’s comprised of a multidisciplinary team that also includes expertise from outside of the Department and our office also participates in each of those reviews."

A public disclosure request has been submitted to DCYF. We’ll continue following updates in this case.

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