WBTV Investigates: A look into a broken child welfare system
“They literally threw away my entire family.”
DURHAM, N.C. (WBTV) - Toia Potts was visiting her three-year-old son at the Community Family Life Recreation Center. A court had mandated that the visit be supervised by a social worker.
Towards the end of her visit, she touched her lips to her son’s palm, made a little fist with his hand, and told him to hold on to the kiss. It was a tip from a parental coach Toia had worked with, a way of reassuring her son he would see her again and help him deal with the trauma of separation.
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“I’ll be back,” Toia told him. “I’ll see you on Thursday, which is two days away.”
Within hours of her promise, a Judge stopped all of Toia’s future visitation with her son. Months later she terminated her parental rights. She has not been allowed to see him since.
To protect the privacy of Toia’s children, we’re addressing them with the pseudonyms Finn and Kenny.
Several years later, Toia’s last visit with her eldest son still haunts her.
“I never came back,” Toia says with tears rolling down both cheeks. “I told him I was going to be there, and I never came back.”
Toia’s case highlights a child welfare bureaucracy characterized by overburdened caseworkers, high turnover rates, and red tape that can paralyze progress for years while children languish in state custody. According to Toia, were it not for the system’s dysfunction, she would still have her kids.
“In my experience, the system does not work,” said Toia. “If it did I would have my children today.”
In the summer of 2017, while visiting her mother in Durham, Toia went into emergency labor. She was six months pregnant at the time and residing in Georgia with her then-fiancé and two-year-old son.
Finn, her newborn, was admitted to the emergency room at Duke University Hospital. He was born prematurely and weighed only three pounds. Toia relocated to Durham and rented an apartment close to the hospital.
After three months in the NICU, Finn was healthy enough to go home with his mother and father.
A few weeks later, Finn was seen by an ophthalmologist and was still determined to be in good health. But days after the doctor’s visit, Toia noticed something was wrong.
“I got ready to change his diaper and I noticed his leg sort of twitched, a movement that didn’t seem normal,” Toia said.
She called her mom, who lived close by, and they drove together to the emergency room.
After examining Finn the doctors told her that her child had multiple fractures. The injuries were in different phases of healing and the hospital filed a suspected child abuse report with the Durham County Department of Social Services.
“Our child had only been home for 22 days,” Toia said. “None of this was making any sense.”
The injuries were serious, so serious that, according to medical records, Finn’s visit to the emergency room saved his life.
Social workers filed a petition in family court alleging that Toia’s children had been neglected and that Finn’s injuries were the result of physical abuse. A judge ordered both children to be placed in state custody.
The DA later charged both parents with felony abuse and medical negligence.
She was arrested and sent to county jail. Toia refused to sign any plea deal that said she abused her child.
While in jail Toia pleaded with the court and social workers to place her sons with family members in Georgia or Florida through a process known as the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, commonly referred to as ICPC.
“It was a nightmare trying to work with social workers and family without access to email or a phone,” said Toia.
The process requires social workers in more than one state to work together to assess the safety of a potential child’s placement. But it’s a process mired in cumbersome bureaucracy and voluminous paperwork, and can take years to play out. Meanwhile, children are in limbo.
Finn and Kenny’s paternal and maternal grandparents, and Toia’s godparents, all began the ICPC application process. Clearly, there was no shortage of family members willing to care for the children. But the ICPC sets no specific deadlines for completing interstate home studies and the process dragged on.
“I don’t believe the ICPC system works,” said Elizabeth Simpson, an attorney at Emancipate North Carolina, a non-profit organization that acts as an ombudsman for incarcerated people.
“The delays are so egregious and the paperwork is so divorced from the stakes, you’re talking about children being separated from their family,” Simpson said.
In addition to the slow pace of the ICPC process, parents like Toia face a range of impediments to reuniting with their children, including a revolving door of social workers.
In Durham County, the turnover rate for frontline child welfare workers is 51 percent. That means that each year, Durham has to replace half of the county’s child welfare workforce. The statewide turnover rate is 45 percent.
In the Charlotte area, Mecklenburg and Cleveland counties both have a turnover rate of 50 percent.
“Every time I got a new social worker I had to do the paperwork all over again,” said Toia.
Five different social workers were assigned to Toia’s case.
It took more than two years from the time the abuse was alleged to when the first ICPC came back approved.
After eight months in jail, Toia was released due to a change in bond policy in Durham.
She resumed visitation with her sons and actively worked with social workers to sort through the ICPC process.
During that time her former fiancé admitted to dropping the infant and the criminal charges against Toia were dropped.
Toia separated from the father of her children and filed an emergency protective order against him.
Despite a glowing Parental Capacity Evaluation done by a court-appointed psychologist and an approved ICPC application for the paternal grandparents, the court denied reunification with either and Toia’s parental rights were terminated.
“They literally threw away my entire family,” said Toia.
The judge ruled to terminate the parental rights on the grounds that Toia still couldn’t explain what happened to Finn.
Toia tried to appeal the judgment, but her appeal was denied.
The goal of any child welfare system, according to federal and state laws, is to be family-centered and to reunify children with their families.
“If North Carolina is supposed to be a reunification state, I would tell people they’re lying, it’s not true,” said Toia.
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