North Carolina officials said Friday they will take over a county child welfare agency that illegally removed children — potentially hundreds of them — from their homes.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said it will temporarily take over the Cherokee County Department of Social Services starting Monday.
The move comes after an Associated Press investigation revealed Cherokee County child welfare workers were not following state law and getting a judge's approval to remove some children from their biological parents.
"It's about time they did something to clean up this mess," Brian Hogan, whose daughter was illegally removed from his custody, told the AP on Friday. "What they did to us was wrong. A lot of people were hurt."
At issue are custody and visitation agreements, or CVAs, which were used by social workers to remove children from their homes.
In order to remove a child from a biological parent, social workers must get a court order from a judge, said Sara DePasquale, assistant professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina.
Cherokee County social workers bypassed that critical legal step with Hogan and dozens, possibly hundreds, of other parents, according to interviews, court documents and copies of the agreements obtained by the AP.
Because a judge and state welfare officials have determined the practice was illegal, the children are at risk of having their lives disrupted again, AP found.
Some children who are better off in their new homes might not be allowed to stay there because the agreements did not follow proper protocol. In other cases, children should not have been removed from their parents. AP found one mother of three was forced to sign away one child to her mother, but not the other two.
While many of the children were given to nearby relatives, some were placed with family members in other states. And some children, who were removed for safety reasons because their parents were addicted to alcohol and drugs, were placed in homes with caregivers who had also been arrested for drugs or faced other serious charges.
The practice of using private custody agreements was implemented by longtime county and social services department attorney Scott Lindsay, according to court testimony.
Lindsay, who was recently fired from the agency, declined to say why he bypassed the court system to remove children, or how many of the arrangements his agency made over the years.
During a recent emergency hearing involving a parent who signed a custody agreement, Lindsay said he started using CVAs in 2007 or "maybe earlier." Lindsay provided legal services for the department for nearly two decades.
Use of CVAs was discovered in December by Melissa Jackson, who was Hogan's attorney.
Hogan said county child-welfare workers began investigating him after they said he placed his child in an "unclean' home while he was caring for his hospitalized wife.
He said social workers threatened to throw him in jail, place his child in foster care or give his daughter to another family for adoption if he didn't sign the agreement.
When Jackson looked into Hogan's case, she found the practice was widespread.
Soon after Jackson exposed the practice, the state sent an "urgent" letter to county agencies on Dec. 20, 2017, warning that "facilitating the completion of private custody agreements" without court oversight "falls outside of both law and policy."
North Carolina has a county-administered system of child protective services. County agencies handle the daily operations, with the state providing training and oversight.
But on Friday, the state took the rare step of taking over the county's department of social services.
In a letter, the state said it had asked the county to review 2,000 child protective services cases dating to 2008.
The state agency, in the past two days, had found "a systemic lack of adequate training, supervision, or capacity to deliver appropriate child welfare services and a disregard for the rights and interests of parents and children that go beyond the use of these Custody and Visitation Agreements," the letter said.
Department head Mandy Cohen said: "Given the critical work performed by our child welfare system and the urgency of the situation, we feel this temporary action is necessary to stabilize the county's child welfare services."
The agency said it would review the matter and work closely with Cherokee County staff "to manage and stabilize child welfare services and develop a plan to bring it into compliance with all applicable laws and appropriate practices."
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at email@example.com
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