‘Give me back my grandkids!’ Cabarrus Co. social workers took kids using illegal form
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (WBTV) – Joyce Banks wiped tears from her eyes as she thought about what she would tell her grandchildren if she could talk with them.
It had been more than a month since she had seen the boy and girl, ages 6 and 10. They’re now living apart in foster care, the boy at a group home and the girl with a foster family.
“I love them,” Banks said through tears. “I love and miss them every day.”
But a WBTV investigation has found the children were initially taken from their parents’ custody using an illegal form known as a temporary guardianship agreement.
The Banks family is one of three families WBTV has found that was subjected to the forms use in April 2021.
Cabarrus County joins two others – Cherokee County and Cleveland County – where informal paperwork has been found being used to take children from their parents’ custody and place them with other adults.
After the Cherokee County Department of Social Services was found to be using a form called a Custody and Visitation Agreement, the DSS director and the agency’s lawyer were both charged with crimes. And, last year, the family of one girl who was taken from her father using the form was awarded $1.6 million in a federal civil lawsuit, Carolina Public Press has reported.
In Cleveland County, use of temporary guardianship forms was discovered last summer and self-reported to regulators at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The discovery of the use of those forms led regulators to find other problems with the county’s child welfare division. DHHS issued a corrective action plan and required the county hire outside consultants and use state personnel to help make decisions on child welfare cases.
That corrective action plan in Cleveland County stretched until early March, days before a WBTV investigation exposed problems with the county’s child welfare services.
State regulators have characterized the use of these illegal forms as isolated incidents, but an ongoing WBTV investigation continues to uncover more agencies, like Cabarrus County, where the forms have been used.
‘He told me I had to print the paperwork off online’
The Banks children were taken from their parents after their father, Michael Banks, and mother, Crystal Green, were arrested on charges related to making child pornography.
Initially, the children lived with their grandmother, Joyce Banks, until she was hospitalized after a fall.
Then social workers placed them with their aunt, Gloria Banks, using the temporary guardianship form.
Gloria Banks said a social worker came to her house, looked around and determined it would be suitable for the kids to stay with her.
Then, she said, he called his supervisor.
“He said I have to check with my supervisor first to make sure that this is OK,” Banks recalled. “He came back and he said yes.”
“He told me that I had to print the paperwork off online.”
Banks said she printed the form like the social worker instructed and then had a notary meet her at the jail, where she and Michael signed the form.
Banks said the kids stayed with her for about six months – from early April until just before school started in August – without social workers ever going to court to get the required order for the children to be placed in her home.
As a result, Banks didn’t get any financial help to care for the children.
‘You can’t do informal agreements. You have to follow the law.’
North Carolina law allows social workers to make emergency placements of children when necessary.
The requirements for making such a placement are outlined in N.C.G.S. 7B-500 and 7B-501. By law, social workers must apply for a court order to hold the children within 12 hours of removing them from their parents or 24 hours on a weekend or holiday.
State Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), who spent nearly two decades as a district court judge before serving in the legislature, said the process is designed for the courts to give oversight of the children in DSS custody.
“You can’t do informal agreements, you have to follow the law,” Morey said.
“A court has to take a petition. They have to listen to facts. They have to assign a guardian ad litem, who has the best interest of the child, and watch out for the permanency, safety, continuity of a child being placed if they’re being placed away from their natural family.”
None of that was done in the case of the Banks children. Social workers didn’t go to court for the entire time they lived with their grandmother or aunt.
“What happens with confidential records? What happens with school records?” Morey asked. “You know, there are so many problems with this, that’s why court involvement is essential.”
Morey’s outrage at the use of these forms was echoed by former district court judge Meredith Shuford, who served in Lincoln and Cleveland counties.
Like Morey, Shuford reviewed the forms used in Cabarrus County at the request of WBTV.
“I was very upset when I first learned of this practice as a result of your reporting. It is a blatant disregard of the North Carolina law,” Shuford said.
“I believe this practice is not in the best interest of children or their families.”
Morey said lawmakers should study the issue of DSS agencies removing children from their homes without a court order.
A denial. Then an explanation. Then another denial.
In an interview with WBTV, Cabarrus County Department of Human Services Director Karen Calhoun strongly denounced the use of the temporary guardianship forms by her agency’s staff.
“As soon as we caught it, we addressed it with the families and told them that that worker should not have used the forms; they’re not a legal custody agreement,” Calhoun said.
But days earlier, a lawyer for Cabarrus County DHS speaking on behalf of the agency, Jay White, said the agency had never used a temporary guardianship form.
White’s denial came in a phone call on Friday, April 6 following up on an email requesting an interview for this story. The email specified the wording at the top of the forms used in each of the three cases from April 2021.
“The label that you have listed, I have not seen that label and I have not seen that form labeled that way,” White said on the call.
Later in the call, White invoked the case of illegal forms that were used in Cherokee County.
“I understand what’s going on in Cherokee County and, you know, that is not happening in Cabarrus County,” he said.
But White’s denials contradict an email sent to the Cabarrus County DHS child welfare staff on April 28, 2021 with the subject like “Guardianship Letters.”
“PA Schueneman and I met with Attorney White and wanted to discuss something that came across Mr. White’s desk,” the email said.
“At no time should CCDHS staff provide any ‘Temporary Guardianship’ or custody paperwork to anyone on our cases. At no time should any CCDHS staff direct anyone to go online and print Temporary Guardianship or custody paperwork to have someone complete and provide to the agency.”
Days after White’s phone call denial, he emailed a statement confirming the use of the temporary guardianship forms.
“On 3 cases a social worker attempted to use these forms to disposition a matter back last April 2021. These forms were not approved and completed without the knowledge of the Cabarrus County Department of Human Services supervisor or administration and contrary to child welfare training,” White’s email said.
White also claimed the agency reported the use of the illegal forms to the state.
But a spokeswoman for N.C. DHHS said the agency did not learn of the use of temporary guardianship forms in Cabarrus County until being asked about it by WBTV for this story.
“Since receiving your inquiry, we have confirmed with Cabarrus County the use of temporary guardianship forms,” N.C. DHHS spokeswoman Catie Armstrong said in a statement.
Armstrong could not provide any specific information on what, specifically, state regulators were doing to address the use of illegal forms in Cabarrus County.
The Banks temporary guardianship form was signed on April 8, 2021. Another form obtained by WBTV was also signed that day. Forms used in a third case were signed on April 14, 2021.
In her interview, Calhoun, the county human services director, said the forms were discovered on April 28, 2021, and immediate action was taken in response.
Despite the state confirming the use of the temporary guardianship forms to place children with adults who are not their parents, Calhoun reversed course during the interview and claimed that the forms were not used.
“They weren’t used, they were caught and addressed appropriately and taken care of. They were not part of our practice. They are not part of our practice and they were not used. A worker attempted to use them,” she said.
‘This is what you see other counties in the newspaper for.’
A new email sent to child welfare staff in April of this year suggests ongoing problems with social workers using illegal forms to remove children from their parents.
Sharon Schueneman, who oversees the child welfare division in Cabarrus County, emailed her staff on April 5, 2022 to address ongoing issues.
“Please remember we are not to under any circumstances use any forms that give any temporary guardianship or Power of Attorney to anyone,” Schueneman’s email began.
“It has been brought to my attention there have been several incidents in which this has happened recently. This is what you see other counties in the newspaper for.”
But, in her interview, Calhoun claimed Schueneman’s email was prompted by one request from a different county to have social workers in Cabarrus County use an illegal form to help close out a case.
When pressed how that explanation squares with Schueneman writing that there had been “several incidents” recently, Calhoun shrugged.
“Poor choice of words perhaps,” Calhoun said.
“But it was an isolated incident, again, where this form was sent to us from the requesting county. And it was one incident and, so, you know, if it sounds like there was more than one incident, you know, I can’t explain that.”
Joyce Banks said she believes her family would still be together had social workers taken the proper steps to remove them from her son’s custody after he was arrested.
“My message to DSS is give me by grandkids back,” she said. “Because y’all went about it the wrong way.”
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