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What did a DHS caseworker see in a teen in foster care repeatedly passed over by other families? Herself.

Tammie Byrd had worked in child welfare for almost 20 years. She and her husband, Franklin, had been empty-nesters for 10, when the last of their four adult children left home.

Adoption was something they had never considered.

Then, Tammie met a 13-year-old girl in foster care who made her feel like she was looking in the mirror at her own, misunderstood teenage self.

“Something just hit me,” Tammie said. “I didn’t know what he was going to say because our babies are in their late 20s, but I sent my husband the video. He called me immediately after he watched it and he said, ‘Let me guess. You want to foster her?’

“At this point, I got emotional. I said, ‘No, we need her. I want to adopt her. He said, ‘Let’s go get her. What do we need to do?’ ”

The video was Hannah M.’s 3½-minute interview for the Oklahoma Heart Gallery, a website used to raise public awareness about the need for permanent families for hundreds of children in custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services whose parents have had their parental rights terminated.

Tammie worked at DHS and had been assigned in November 2018 to transport Hannah and another child in foster care halfway across the state to a photo and video shoot for the Heart Gallery.

When she learned a few months later that yet another family that considered adopting Hannah had opted out, she couldn’t understand why.

“I was worried about her. I was curious about her. I wanted to know how her video went. It was just curiosity,” Tammie said. “The truth is, this child looks horrible on paper — but that is not the child I met.”

She remembered how amazing Hannah had been with the awkward, shy 10-year-old boy also along for that long car ride and the five or six hours of waiting at the Oklahoma Heart Gallery production day.

“She was so kind to him. She mothered him like a big sister and I seen her heart,” Tammie said. “Throughout the day, I saw her looking after him and they had never met before.”

Two-foot-tall case file

Hannah had been in state custody since age 6, and all of her siblings had been adopted in the years since they were removed from their home. Tammie learned Hannah had a case file nearly two feet tall and had been in 30-40 different foster care settings.

“I lost count,” said Hannah, shaking her head.

Still, Tammie said she never read any of Hannah’s conduct records — even after it would have been ethical to do so during a full disclosure period right before the adoption.

“I didn’t need to read those papers because I know on paper, she looks like a rebellious, loud, mouthy kid. And she is kind of a rebellious, loud, mouthy kid — but so am I,” she said, laughing. “I was more of a juvenile delinquent. I had lived in different places when I was younger — my aunt’s, my cousin’s — but all of these places I was in, nobody saw me. They only heard me because I was loud and used humor to cover up a lot of scars. She was the same.

“Her behaviors were sometimes extreme due to her environment, and now, you would never know she was not a typical child who was born in this family.”

‘Baby Byrd’

Because the Byrds live in Coffeyville, Kansas, the adoption process was slightly complicated by a statutory agreement between all 50 states that sets forth special requirements before a child can be placed out of state, called the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.

In the meantime, DHS allowed Tammie to serve as Hannah’s mentor worker, meaning they could speak by phone two to three times a week, on one condition.

“She knew another family wanted her, but she had no clue it was me. We didn’t want to set her up for failure,” Tammie said.

Finally, on July 3, the Byrds received the permission they needed from the state of Kansas to bring Hannah home for a 30-day visit.

“I was figuring it out,” Hannah said, recalling the moment her primary DHS caseworker, Karen Spencer, and Tammie broke the news to her via FaceTime that Tammie and her husband were the ones trying to adopt her. “I was kind of scared, honestly, because so many people had given up on me before. I was nervous, but also really excited.”

Two days after Hannah arrived in the Byrd home, Franklin, a truck driver, met his new daughter for the very first time.

“It has been a pretty good fit. I’m kind of surprised by how well we’ve gelled as a family,” he said.

The Byrds’ trial adoption period began the first week in August, but the typical requirement for a minimum of six months in this stage was waived because of Tammie’s work history at DHS and her established relationship with the child.

On Nov. 14, two days shy of the one-year anniversary of Tammie meeting Hannah, a judge familiar with Hannah’s case offered to make the adoption official by squeezing the hearing into his lunch break.

They wore T-shirts, specially made for the occasion, that read “Mama Byrd,” “Papa Byrd” and “Baby Byrd.” They were surrounded by their large, extended family and a handful of Tammie’s co-workers from the Oklahoma DHS Adoption Transition Unit.

In addition to getting a new last name, Hannah elected to make a totally fresh start by getting her first name legally changed to Raegyn. Still, she wanted both names disclosed in case her biological mother reads about her adoption.

“I want her to know I’m all right, that I’m happy,” said Raegyn, as her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “In this home, I have privacy, I’m respected. There’s no abuse, no neglect, no filth.”

These days, Raegyn also goes by a slew of pet names that Tammie and Franklin have for her, including “Our baby,” “Baby Byrd,” and “The Caboose.”

Her new, adult siblings and a host of aunts and uncles play an active role in her day-to-day life. And she quickly settled in to new past times, like raiding Tammie’s closet for clothes, and Saturday trips on the back of Franklin’s motorcycle for ice cream at McDonald’s, to visit family or to go to Toys For Tots events.

“I see myself so much in her, I feel like I can relate to her and kind of guess what she needs and what she wants,” said Tammie. “I know how I wanted to be talked to at her age, so I talk to her that way, and we’ve bonded.”

Franklin said he looks forward to returning home at the end of each of his days-long shifts of truck driving.

“She runs up and hugs me — it’s made me appreciate life a little more. It’s not just me and Tammy and the dogs,” he said.

‘I am a mom’

What does Raegyn wish more people like the Byrds, who weren’t looking to adopt, understood about teens in state custody in need of new homes?

“A. We’re fun; B. We clean up our own mess; and C. We wipe our own butt,” she said, cracking herself and her parents up.

Tammie interjected, while still laughing, “She heard that from me the other day, because we were discussing what kind of foster kid we would take and I said ‘If they can’t wipe their own butt, no way, no how.’ ”

Yes, the Byrds are considering becoming foster parents.

“I figure there are four outcomes for kids who just age out of the system — prostitution, drugs, jail or death,” said Franklin, looking at Raegyn. “She can become a productive citizen now. She can go to college, she can be a mom, whatever she wants.”

Tammie, who recently took a different job in Kansas so she can always be close by for Raegyn, said she feels like she’s gotten her purpose in life back.

“I am a mom,” she said, choking up over those four words. “A lot of people say they could never be a foster parent because what if they get attached? I say that’s the point. Whether that child is with you a few days, a few weeks or a few months, they will carry with them that experience of knowing what a stable, loving home is like.”

Heart gallery: Dozens of children are waiting for adoption. Read their stories here.

Dozens of children are waiting for adoption. Read their stories in the Oklahoma Heart Gallery

National
Questions arise after Iran admits it shot down jetliner by mistake

TEHRAN, Iran — In the face of mounting evidence, Iran on Saturday acknowledged that it shot down the Ukrainian jetliner by accident, killing all 176 people aboard. The admission by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard undermined the credibility of information provided by senior officials, who for three days had adamantly dismissed allegations of a missile strike as Western propaganda.

It also raised a host of new questions, such as why Iran did not shut down its international airport or airspace on Wednesday when it was bracing for the U.S. to retaliate for a ballistic missile attack on two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. No one was hurt in that attack, carried out in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an American airstrike in Baghdad.

Iran’s acknowledgment alters the narrative around its confrontation with the U.S. in a way that could anger the Iranian public. Iran had promised harsh revenge after Soleimani’s death, but instead of killing American soldiers, its forces downed a civilian plane in which most passengers were Iranian.

On Saturday night, hundreds gathered at universities in Tehran to protest the government’s late acknowledgement of the plane being shot down. They demanded officials involved in the missile attack be removed from their positions and tried. Police broke up the demonstrations.

President Donald Trump tweeted messages of support to Iranians who back protests of the government, saying he and his administration are behind them. In the tweets, Trump called on the Iranian government to allow human rights groups to monitor the protests and expressed support for the “brave, long-suffering people” of Iran.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace division, said his unit accepts full responsibility for the shootdown. In an address broadcast by state TV, he said when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I was dead.”

He said he raised the possibility to his superiors that his forces shot down the plane as early as Wednesday morning because “the simultaneous occurrence of the launch and crash was suspicious.”

Hajizadeh said Guard forces ringing the capital had beefed up their air defenses and were at the “highest level of readiness,” fearing that the U.S. would retaliate. He said he suggested Tehran should close its airspace but no action was taken.

He said the airline’s pilot and crew had done nothing wrong, but an officer made the “bad decision” to open fire on the plane after mistaking it for a cruise missile.

“We were prepared for an all-out conflict,” he said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed his “deep sympathy” to the families of the victims and called on the armed forces to “pursue probable shortcomings and guilt in the painful incident.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the U.S., Britain, Canada and others for information about the crash and their support. He said that “undoubtedly helped” push Iran to acknowledge its responsibility for the crash. Zelenskiy said the crash investigation should continue and the “perpetrators” should be brought to justice.

The Ukrainian airline criticized Iran’s decision to leave its airspace open despite the hostilities.

“It’s absolutely irresponsible,” Ukraine International Airlines vice president Ihor Sosnovskiy told reporters. “There must be protection around ordinary people. If they are shooting somewhere from somewhere, they are obliged to close the airport.”

The plane, a Boeing 737 en route to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians — including many Iranians with dual citizenship — and 11 Ukrainians, according to officials.

Iranians had rallied around their leaders after the killing of Soleimani, who was seen as a national icon for building up armed groups across the region that project Iranian influence and battle the Islamic State group and other perceived enemies.

Hundreds of thousands had attended funeral processions across the country in a show of support for the Islamic Republic just weeks after authorities had quashed protests ignited by a hike in gasoline prices. Iran has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions.

The shootdown of the plane and the lack of transparency around it, along with the restrained response to the killing of Soleimani, could reignite anger at the country’s leadership.

President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged Iran’s responsibility but blamed the downing of the plane in part on “threats and bullying” by the United States after the killing of Soleimani. He expressed condolences, calling for a full investigation and the prosecution of those responsible.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also deflected some of the blame, tweeting that “human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster.”

The jetliner, a Boeing 737, went down on the outskirts of Tehran early Wednesday shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport.

The U.S. and Canada, citing intelligence, said they believed Iran shot down the aircraft with a surface-to-air missile, a conclusion supported by videos verified by The Associated Press.

“This is the right step for the Iranian government to admit responsibility, and it gives people a step toward closure with this admission,” said Payman Parseyan, a prominent Iranian-Canadian in western Canada who lost a number of friends in the crash.

“I think the investigation would have disclosed it whether they admitted it or not. This will give them an opportunity to save face.”

As recently as Friday, Ali Abedzadeh, the head of the national aviation department, had told reporters “with certainty” that a missile had not caused the crash.

On Thursday, Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei dismissed reports of a missile, saying they “rub salt on a painful wound” for families of the victims.

Iran has invited Ukraine, Canada, the United States and France to take part in the investigation of the crash, in keeping with international norms. The Boeing 737 was built in the United States and the engine was built by a U.S.-French consortium.

Ukraine’s president said its team of investigators, who are already on the ground in Iran, should continue their work with “full access and cooperation.”

Rouhani spoke Saturday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and said the investigation was progressing rapidly. His website quoted him accusing the United States of driving the situation in the Middle East to a “dangerous level” and said all should try to return “full stability and security” to the region.

After the call, which was unusual because Canada severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012, Trudeau said Iran’s acknowledgment was a first step but “many more steps must be taken.” He demanded a complete investigation and for Iran to take full responsibility for shooting down the plane, including the payment of compensation to the families of the dead.

While the dead included 57 Canadians, a total of 138 of the passengers were headed to Canada, many of them international students.

The Ukrainian president, who also spoke with Rouhani on Saturday, said his government will also push Iran to compensate victims’ families.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that the supreme leader on Friday morning had ordered top security officials to review the crash and announce the results.

“If some individuals, in any position, were aware of the issue but made statements contradicting the reality or hid the truth for any reason, they should be named and tried,” said Fars, which is close to the Guard.

Others speculated that the security forces may have concealed information from civilian authorities.

“Concealing the truth from the administration is dreadful,” Mohammad Fazeli, a sociology professor in Tehran, wrote on social media. “If it had not been concealed, the head of civil aviation and the government spokesmen would not have persistently denied it.”

Late Saturday, Britain accused Iran of violating international law after its ambassador was arrested and briefly detained during protests in Tehran. Iranian media said ambassador Rob Macaire was arrested outside a university and detained for more than an hour before being released.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “the arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law.”


Government-and-politics
Tulsa residents, officers share similar vision for next police chief, mayor says

No one will be able to say with a clear conscience that Mayor G.T. Bynum wasn’t open to hearing from Tulsans about what they’re looking for in the city’s next police chief and in the Police Department.

Last week alone he held three town hall meetings on the subject. He’s met with dozens of north Tulsa faith leaders, the local police union and representatives of the Hispanic community. He’s made dozens of phone calls and is spending this weekend making more.

What he has learned from all the listening might surprise you.

“Throughout my discussions this week there was such a similarity between what people in the community and the city, the citizens, are hoping for from the next police chief and for policing over the next 10 years, and what the officers themselves hope for the next chief and want to see in the city and in policing over the next 10 years,” Bynum said.

“I don’t think both sides are aware of that (shared vision) because they haven’t had the luxury of communicating with one another as I have had over the last couple of weeks,” the mayor said.

Three of those shared aspirations became evident during last week’s town hall meetings, the mayor said: the desire for the next police chief to have high standards and a clear plan to hold officers accountable for meeting them; for the chief to be personally engaged in the community and expect the same of the officers; and for the department to have the best training in the nation.

Bynum has set no timeline for naming a successor to Chief Chuck Jordan, who is retiring effective Feb. 1. But he has made it clear that that person likely will be chosen from the seven internal candidates who have applied for the job.

“I don’t view as synonymous an internal candidate with the status quo,” he said. “I think someone who has been in the organization, who understands the organization — the good and the bad — and the people within the organization and also the issues we’ve been facing in Tulsa over the last several years as it relates to policing and community relations, is better positioned to continue the kinds of improvements we want.”

Plenty of speakers at last week’s town hall meetings let Bynum know they disagreed with him on that issue. Others urged him to select an African American or other minority. Given the sheer number of people he’s heard from, Bynum’s bound to disappoint more than a few Tulsans when he makes his decision.

He knows it.

“The clear recognition that I had during the week is that there is no candidate, there is no person alive, who can fit what expectations every person has,” he said.

He added: “That is the nature of selecting somebody for a job. There is always going to be people who don’t think that you got the right person. And then the real onus is on the person in the job to prove that they were worth the trust in placing it with them.”

At the start of each public meeting last week, the mayor laid out the qualities he is looking for in the next police chief. He wants someone who possesses strategies for and understands the importance of continuing existing policies to make the city safer; has bought into and understands the importance of community policing; has strong financial management skills; and is committed to innovation and the use of technology.

Bynum said he understands and appreciates the desire expressed by many Tulsans for more public engagement in the selection process, and he said he is working to finalize such a format.

He is adamant, however, about not turning the hiring process into a popularity contest.

“This is about finding the person, based on everything I have heard — and not just in the last week and a half but in the last three years, really in the last 12 years that I have been at the city — that people want to see from the Police Department and the chief who leads it,” Bynum said.


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