‘It just blows my mind.’ Kids taken from family, DSS case closed without ever going to court

WBTV Investigates: Social workers removed children without court order
It’s the latest story shared with WBTV in our ongoing investigation into the practice of DSS agencies across North Carolina removing children from their homes
Published: May. 5, 2022 at 2:53 PM EDT
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LUMBERTON, N.C. (WBTV) – It’s been nearly a year since Jennifer Jones and her husband Lee Locklear saw their granddaughters.

The last time they saw them was walking into the Robeson County Department of Social Services building in July 2021.

The girls—ages two and four at the time—belong to Locklear’s daughter. Jones and Locklear helped raise them.

DSS took the girls from their mother in 2019 and placed with Jones and Locklear through a process known as a kinship placement. Social workers never went to court to make the arrangement official.

The last time they saw them was walking into the Robeson County Department of Social Services building in July 2021.

Then social workers took the girls from Jones’ and Locklear’s home and placed them with another relative.

Not long after the, the girls were placed with their respective fathers, records show.

None of the placements happened with the oversight of a judge. Social workers never went to court to get an order, despite a legal requirement to do so.

It’s the latest story shared with WBTV in our ongoing investigation into the practice of DSS agencies across North Carolina removing children from their homes without a court order.

‘When are we going to court?’

Jones called us after seeing our stories in March about the practice in Cleveland and Gaston counties.

“It just blows my mind that one institution could have so much power to break up families and pull them apart,” Jones said.

Documents Jones provided to WBTV show social workers closed the case in January 2022, after Jones said she talked with a DSS supervisor in hopes of resolving the case.

Instead, her stepdaughter got a letter saying the case would be closed because the girls were in the custody of their fathers.

“The Robeson County Department of Social Services has substantiated your case but will be closing it out due to the children being in placement with their fathers,” the letter said.

Related: ‘Delete this form and never use again.’ DSS agencies remove kids without judge’s order.

State law requires those decisions to be made by a judge, not a social worker.

Specifically, G.S. 7B-500 says the decision to take a child into custody should be presented to a judge within 12 hours, or 24 hours on a weekend or holiday.

Robeson County DSS Director Velvet Nixon defended the agency in an email.

“The practices and procedures of our agency are compliant with state statutory and case law,” she said.

Nixon’s email did not provide any law that allows social workers to award custody of a child to one parent over another.

A spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services—the state agency responsible for overseeing county DSS agencies—said her office could not comment on what happened in the Robeson County case without specifics, even though WBTV provided a copy of the letter closing the case.

“If a child can reside in the custody of a parent without safety concerns, then there may be circumstances where a child protective services case may be closed without a court order establishing that parent has custody of his or her own child,” the DHHS spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether social workers could award custody of a child to one parent over another without a court order.

“We asked them repeatedly, ‘when are we going to court? When are we going to court?’” Jones said. “It went on for months and months up until this January.”

‘Only an arrangement’

Nicole Dixon lost custody of her son in 2015.

At the time, the Cleveland County Department of Social Services put her son in the custody of her parents using a document known as a safety placement.

Safety placements are meant to be temporary—between 30 and 60 days—while DSS workers help stabilize the child’s home.

“These placements are intended to be temporary and it is only an arrangement, and does not give the caretakers custody of the child,” a Cleveland County DSS worker wrote the boy’s father—who was in jail at the time—of the 2015 safety placement.

But Dixon’s son’s placement stretched seven months, until she and her parents went to court without DSS to have a custody order entered.

In an interview with WBTV, Dixon said she felt forced into signing the safety placement agreement.

“We never saw a judge or anything,” she said. “They told me that if I didn’t sign that paper, at first, that my child would just go into foster care.”

The DHHS spokeswoman said safety placements should be voluntary and acknowledged there is no basis in the law for their use.

“A parent has the legal authority to make a placement on behalf of their child,” the spokeswoman said.

“North Carolina statutes do not specifically address the use of many specific protective services, including safety placements”

Dixon said she spent nearly $30,000 dollars on lawyers to regain custody of her son, which she did in 2019.

She said she was shocked when she saw a WBTV investigation in March that uncovered Cleveland County DSS’s use of a different form—called a temporary guardianship form—that was being used to assign custody of children from their parents to other people.

Those forms are illegal. The discovery of the forms’ use in Cleveland County prompted N.C. DHHS to issue a corrective action plan and, functionally, take over the county’s child protective services by requiring the county to hire outside supervisors to monitor how cases were being handled and sending state staffers to oversee decision making.

The state released Cleveland County from its action plan in March 2022, days before a WBTV investigation was set to air exposing the problem.

The plan only required the county to review two years of cases, from June 2019 through June 2021, to identify instances where children had been taken from their parents without a court order.

That means cases like Dixon’s were never on their radar.

“We thought we were supposed to believe what DSS said,” Dixon said, noting she does not think that anymore.

Cleveland County DSS Director Katie Swanson did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment for this story.

Swanson has previously defended the way in which she reported her agency’s use of the temporary guardianship forms, in an emailed statement to WBTV in late February.

“We take seriously our duty to protect the children of Cleveland County,” Swanson said at the time. “That means that when we identify an error, we report it to our supervising authorities and work towards a solution. This is exactly what Cleveland County DSS has done.

Both Dixon and Jones called WBTV in hopes putting a face on the issue of children being taken from their homes without a court order would catch the attention of lawmakers and other decision makers in Raleigh who, so far, have refused to take action in response to what WBTV has uncovered.

“Now I’ve been listening to all the stories in the news that have been going on about DSS, so it’s not like Raleigh is not aware of what’s going on,” Jones said.

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