Coalition adds Vance County to target list

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 09:51 PM

An advocacy group claiming problems about in social services departments across the state has targeted Vance County.

Justice for All Coalition, which first gained attention for a case in Union County, is gathering information from parents and other caregivers.

In response, Vance County Social Services Director Antonia Pedroza said claims of corruption about how social services are administered locally are “absolutely false.”

A deadline of Jan. 15 is approaching for filing claims with the U.S. Department of Justice. Advocates with the coalition said they offer expertise to help complainants with documenting and organizing claims according to federal protocols.

The coalition started in Union County, where an 11-year-old boy was found in November handcuffed to a front porch with a dead chicken tied to his neck. A supervisor with the Union County DSS and her husband, an emergency room nurse, have been indicted in that case.

Pedroza said she was not aware of advocates gathering information from Vance County families, claims of corruption or of possible federal involvement with claims into North Carolina or Vance County social services work.

“I have no information about that, so I don’t have a comment at this time,” Pedroza said.

Justice advocate Jeremy Bess with Justice for All said when he combed through complaints from 25 families, Vance County stood out statewide as the place to start a statewide advocacy effort beyond Union County.

Bess said there have been complaints from all counties. He said 75 percent is a typical percentage that can be set aside for credibility reasons, and none in Vance fit that immediate disqualification.

Bess said they also seemed to involve the same “players,” meaning particular judges, department of social services workers, attorneys and guardian ad litems.

“When two or three cases turn up the same players, that’s coincidence, or irony if you will,” Bess said. “When it’s 25 or so, it is a problem. Every case looks alike, and that alarms us.”

According to Bess, his team will work on verifying the claims, using documents and details of each case that complainants shared. Bess said the mission is advocacy of children, not for or against certain parents, departments or institutions.

Their hope is that federal involvement will provide a third-party unbiased review after state oversight has failed.

“They have to document to us what they say, and we have to fact-check what they say before we will help them,” Bess said. “From the documents we have received, and from discussions today, to this point it checks out that federal laws have been violated.”

The engagement of the Department of Justice, according to Bess, came from an issue in another state. The result was an agreement for federal review at the DOJ of cases from across the nation, if guidelines are followed, with next Wednesday as the deadline.

According to Justice for All founder Jeff Gerber, going federal is a lesson learned from dealing with the situation in Union County.

“The Department of Justice has agreed to look at each individual case of potential wrongdoing on the part of county DSS providers,” Gerber said. “Jeremy is the one we have designated to travel through the state to educate citizens on the proper format for filing claims. It is not just Union and Vance County, we are hearing horror stories in counties throughout the state.”

Bess characterized the problem as practically as bad as human trafficking, with economically disadvantaged families and intellectually challenged parents or caregivers easy prey for presumptive decisions on the part of social workers to take children into foster care and adoption programs.

And with federal dollars fueling the process.

Pedroza said state standards are followed regarding removal of children for placement into outside care. She added that North Carolina has some of the highest standards for helping families and meeting goals of reunifying children with their parents or original caregivers that they came from.

“We provide excellent reunification services for families,” Pedroza said. “There is no cost benefit to the department of social services to take children from disadvantaged homes. The goal is not to make money. That is absolutely false. It goes against every standard that the state has developed and every initiative the state has provided.”

According to Pedroza, while federal, state and local funding flows into her department to provide services, appropriating children into the system does not make any profit for the department. She said the allegations by Justice for All make no sense.

With the state’s poverty level high, trying to appropriate the state’s poor children is obviously nonsensical, according to Pedroza. Social workers do not take children from homes because of a home’s lack of income, she added.

“A person’s wealth has nothing to do with keeping children safe,” Pedroza said. “The rules are the same. The standards are the same. We have to do what is best for the children, and keep children safe.”

In the Union County case, Gerber and Bass said stonewalling from North Carolina agencies was apparent. They tried to have an independent review of the county department, and the most they received was involvement from a neighboring county’s DSS.

“It was one of the worst cases of child abuse I have ever seen,” Bess said.

Gerber said over time, it was apparent the third-party agency of federal government would be needed to probe the problem with state agency social services departments.

Gerber said on Wednesday the information gathering from Vance County has had a positive impact on parents and caregivers with which his team members spoke.

“Everyone was receptive as far as handling the paperwork required for the Department of Justice,” Gerber said. “There was a lot of relief.”

Bess added there is practically no accountability from state departments over local social service activities.

“We have learned that there is no one in the state of North Carolina willing to investigate the department of social services and child protective services,” Bess said. “The CPS is a multi-million dollar money machine for the state, so there is no accountability, no transparency, no checks and balances.

“The system is more concerned about protecting the system than they are about protecting the children. It almost appears there is a human trafficking ring being run here as fast as children are being snatched up and sent out of Vance County while parents are still fighting for them.”

Pedroza said she has not seen any indication of such allegations holding any merit anywhere in North Carolina, let alone with her department.

“I have not seen an iota of evidence of what the advocacy group has been saying,” Pedroza said. “Federal dollars come in for many, many things: food stamps, Medicaid, many things as well as child protective services. Almost every service we provide is linked to federal dollars in some form or fashion.”

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.