A former social services director in Bertie County may have acted unlawfully when she, instead of a judge, signed temporary custody orders to remove children from their families.
The state Department of Health and Human Services took over administration of Bertie County Department of Social Services’s child welfare office in May.
Once there, state workers found an office in disarray, filled with untrained workers who didn’t understand state laws or policies, and a director who signed documents that one lawyer contacted by Carolina Public Press said was a violation of state law.
“There is a complete absence of leadership over child welfare services, starting with the BCDSS Director,” DHHS’s initial assessment of the county’s child welfare office said in a report authored last month.
In May, the state Department of Health and Human Services took the unusual step of taking over the child welfare office within Bertie County DSS.
Former director Cindy Perry had worked in a variety of roles at Bertie County’s Department of Social Services since 1990, working her way up from someone who verifies income of clients to a variety of social work positions.
County Human Resources Director Cortney Ward, said the state Office of Human Resources said Perry was qualified to be a director when she was hired to the position in 2016.
Perry’s retirement was effective July 1, according to a document signed by herself and County Manager Juan Vaughan II on June 24. Perry earned $84,547 per year. Two others have left the office since May, a social work supervisor and an income maintenance worker, county records show.
Bertie County is part of a wider judicial district in the eastern part of the state that includes Hertford, Northampton and Halifax counties. Social workers often traveled to those counties to ask judges to sign a non-secure custody order.
Such orders are typically sought when there’s a “substantial risk of bodily harm or injury” to a child, said David Wijewickrama, an attorney who has represented families in Western North Carolina.
“The court will authorize a removal for a very short duration to set the matter for a hearing, to determine the veracity of the allegations,” Wijewickrama said.
“DHHS also discovered that the Director signed several nonsecure custody orders,” the DHHS assessment of the office said. “Only a judge or a judge’s authorized designee has the authority to issue a custody order for a juvenile.”
Wijewickrama said “it is unlawful for a director to sign an order. … If a child is removed under a protective order that a director signs, it is not legally binding.”
He also said her signing in place of a judge constitutes “unauthorized practice of law.”
Wijewickrama is one of a team of lawyers who represents children and families from Cherokee County who were separated by Cherokee County DSS workers without any judicial or legal oversight. One father and daughter won a $4.6 million federal jury verdict last year.
Cherokee County commissioners voted last month to settle the remaining nearly two dozen cases for $42 million.
DHHS says the Bertie director signed “several” of these orders. Wijewickrama said removing a child without judicial authority could be a violation of that child’s constitutional rights.
The office lacked an organized filing system, and sometimes documents were filed in courthouses outside of Bertie County. Workers did not seek records from other counties when a state computer system showed a family had a history with other county child welfare agencies, the document said.
“Documentation in all records is minimal to nonexistent,” the evaluation says.
The office also lacked a daily schedule that ensured someone was available to take reports of maltreatment.
“A community member reported that they had tried calling in a (child welfare) report every day for a week with no response,” the state’s report says.
More than two months after the state took over the child welfare division, a robust team of DHHS workers remain on site.
Currently there are four child welfare workers from the state assigned to day-to-day work in the county, according to a DHHS statement to CPP, along with two consultants serving as supervisors for child welfare staff. There’s also two contractors, experienced social workers supervised by the state, who are coaching Bertie County workers.
On top of that, “two DHHS section chiefs are serving as program managers for the child welfare division in Bertie County,” the statement reads. “They rotate responsibilities every other week and are on site at least once a month for a week at a time.”
Two other high-level DHHS staffers share administration of the county’s child welfare department and are in the county at least two days per week.
The state is also examining Bertie County’s administration of adult protective services, said Greg Atkins, a Bertie County DSS board member and former county sheriff.
The state said case decisions about vulnerable adults were “made without proper legal authority,” according to an assessment of the county’s adult protective services office authored last week.
While he’s not been aware of any criminal investigations, Atkins said he wonders whether one is coming.
“It would not surprise me if there was a criminal investigation down the road somewhere because I don’t know the depth of this yet,” he said.
Calls to phone numbers associated with Perry were not answered.
The DSS board hired retired Lenoir County DSS Director Jack Jones as Bertie DSS’ interim director. He has worked as an interim director for other Eastern North Carolina counties, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald reported earlier this month.
Perry initially wanted to fight a forced dismissal, according to the News-Herald, but county paperwork said she retired instead.
When asked how long he thinks DHHS will be working with Bertie County, Atkins said as long as it takes.
“We are committed to do whatever is necessary to fix this problem as best we can to ensure that it never happens again,” Atkins said.