The “Letha Kay Louise Slate Act” is now one step closer to becoming law. The measure, authored by Sen. Debbe Leftwich, closes a loophole in current Oklahoma law impacting child neglect cases. The measure, part of Senate Bill 790, won final passage in the Senate on Thursday. Leftwich said the legislation is named for a Stephen’s County baby who drowned in a bathtub while her mother took a nap.
Under the current law, several conditions are listed that must be proven in order to charge a person with neglect. Those include lack of food, shelter, medical care, proper clothing “and” supervision. Defense attorneys successfully argued that the mother did not violate all five conditions, and therefore the case did not meet the definition of neglect.
“Letha drowned because of neglect. But because the law said ‘and’ instead of ‘or,’ the judge ruled the case didn’t meet the legal definition of neglect,” said Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City. “Because of that, she was convicted of a much lesser charge and given a lighter sentence. When I heard this story, I knew we had to change the law so this wouldn’t happen again.”
The baby’s father, John Slate, had pushed for the measure to change the definition of neglect, and said he was extremely grateful to Leftwich for championing the bill. Slate felt the legislation gave meaning to his daughter’s tragedy.
“With this bill, I truly believe in my heart that this is why my little girl had to die now. I believe that she had to die so this could happen and other kids could be safe and be protected,” Slate said.
Leftwich said SB 790 also included a measure requested by the grandmother of Kelsey Briggs, the 2-year-old Oklahoma girl who died as a result of child abuse after a judge returned her to her mother and stepfather. Leftwich said she had worked with Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, to include the language requiring the Department of Human Services and the Commission on Children and Youth to disclose more information on child death and near death cases when requested.
The measure now returns to the House of Representatives for a final vote. If approved, the bill will be sent to Gov. Brad Henry for his signature.