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Wake Up Call, DSS!

By: Carolyn J. Woodruff, attorney

While nothing in this article should be viewed to condone the horrific acts of Christopher Lee Neal, age 42, who shot at a social services worker after children were taken from his home, the event should be a wake up call for the Department of Social Services (DSS). Apparently this Reidsville man targeted at least two social services employees that had been working on his child custody case. He shot at one of the social workers through her car window in Burlington. According to news reports, she was not injured. He was later apprehended in Myrtle Beach.

Let’s face it. Taking away a child is serious business and emotionally drenching, and should only be done by DSS with all the proper protocols, which involve either having law enforcement or a Juvenile Judge.   Unfortunately, DSS in many instances is acting outside the bounds of the law and the Constitution, and they do not follow proper protocol regarding the removal of children, in allegedly dangerous situations, from homes. This makes a parent mad.

DSS is not law enforcement, and DSS is not a court of law. DSS is an agency that MUST apply to the Juvenile Court for the authority for search and seizure of children. DSS can assess the danger and apply to the Juvenile Court, but DSS is not permitted to “search and seize” children based on its own safety assessment. This seizure is improper. While I like Sheriff Page, his statement if reported accurately is both incorrect and not in keeping with the US Constitution. He reportedly said in a Press Conference, ‘Child Protective Services were investigating a case…During the process in their job, sometimes they have to remove children from the home because of neglect and abuse.” No, this is not correct. DSS can investigate, and DSS can apply to the court to obtain an order to remove the child, but DSS cannot do this removal simply because DSS thinks it should. To do so is unconstitutional search and seizure.

Triad County Departments of Social Services need to seek wisdom from the late 2016 jury verdict against Los Angeles County that awarded Rafaelina Duval in the sum of $3.1 million dollars in damages for wrongfully seizing her child. The plaintiff’s attorney Shawn McMillan apparently believes that the problems in DSS are symptomatic of unchecked government power.

On October 4, 2016, The federal court in South Carolina approved a Social Services Class Action settlement which paid millions and got improvements for 3400 children. There also was a multi-million dollar payment by South Carolina in the settlement.

Then let’s not forget Wanda Larson, the Social Services Supervisor in Union County, who abused a child in her own home in foster care. She was arrested after the boy was found handcuffed to the porch with a dead chicken around his neck. Larson was sentenced to 17 months in prison. She is now being sued civilly in Union County. The lawsuit alleges that as a DSS supervisor she used her “connections” and “friendships” with Union County officials to “manipulate” her custody of the boy.

None of the news reporting I have seen talk about the Mother of the child or children of Mr. Neal who shot at the Social Services worker. Let’s say the Mother of the children felt the children were in physical danger and wanted emergency custody. Even she as the Mother would have to apply to the court and obtain a warrant for law enforcement to retrieve her child(ren). Should Social Services be required to do less than a biological parent to retrieve a child allegedly in danger?

According to Troxel v. Granville, US Supreme Court: The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process clause provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests, including the parents’ fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.

While no one wants a child injured, the societal safeguard is a Juvenile Judge who independently reviews the allegations and orders the seizure of a child, not a unilateral decision of DSS. The review of the Judge should be independent and not a rubber stamp. These hearings can be held quickly, with a follow-up hearing in a short window of time like ten days to give the parents time to be heard. And, of course, if there is a crime being committed, we have sworn law enforcement intervention. DSS is not sworn law enforcement. DSS is not a court. DSS should follow the rules.

Again, this is not an endorsement of what Mr. Neal did, but maybe even Mr. Neal would not have been angry if all proper processes had been followed. Of course, the media will never really know what processes were followed by DSS because all of the records are secret and confidential. These secret records should be opened by legislation. There are safeguards to protect the name of a juvenile, and that is enough. The secrecy had its own set of potential for corruption.