A former DHS shelter worker fired for being "too friendly" with a teenager staying at the shelter is under criminal investigation after she became pregnant. Although investigators say there was no evidence of an illegal relationship at the time the woman was fired, a DHS supervisor says the woman's pregnancy may indicate that she was involved in a sexual relationship with the teen.
Improper Contact with Teenager
Suzi Jane Neel, 30, was a DHS employee working at a youth shelter when she was warned last November against "sitting too close" to a 16-year-old boy at the shelter and eating chips from a bag the boy held between his legs. When she was caught with the teen again, the agency fired her.
DHS officials say there was no need to report the incident to police at that time, because her actions, although in violation of DHS policies, did not appear to be criminal.
Oklahoma's Age of Consent
Under Oklahoma law, no one in state custody can consent to sexual activity with a state employee, even if the person in custody has reached or surpassed the age of consent. In Oklahoma, the age of consent is 16. It would be illegal for the DHS worker to kiss, fondle, or become sexually involved with the teenager, but it would not be a violation of state law to share a bag of chips with him.
Of the incidents that led to Neel's firing, DHS spokesperson Sheree Powell says, "There was ... nothing that was reported or witnessed that would give any indication of any type of a sexual relationship."
After Neel was fired, the teen ran away from the shelter. Police received a tip that the runaway might be at Neel's home, and indeed, the teen was arrested at her home on January 8, when police arrived to find him on her porch.
Potential Statutory Rape Charges?
In May, one of Neel's former supervisors learned that Neel had been picking the teen up from school and contacted police to say she thought there "might be something going on" between the woman and the teen.
However, at that point, the woman had been fired and the teen had passed the age of consent. In other words, she was no longer a state employee, so by law, it should not matter even if there was "something going on" as this would no longer qualify as statutory rape. (read more on this topic here)
Earlier this month, the supervisor learned that Neel is pregnant with twins. She called police to say that she believed that the teen could be the father of the children. In a petition for divorce, Neel's husband claims that his wife's pregnancy is "not of the marriage."
The case is interesting, because if there was no illegal contact between the shelter worker and the teen while she was employed by DHS, then no crime was committed. If there is or was a sexual relationship between the now 17-year-old and the 30-year-old woman, and that relationship only began after she was no longer employed by the state, then that relationship is not against the law. Unless police find sufficient evidence that there was a sexual relationship while Neel was still a DHS employee, it may be difficult to make any criminal charges stick.
Image Credit: Frank De Kleine