A former Bertie County Human Services Director may have acted illegally when she, instead of a judge, signed temporary custody orders to remove the children from their families.

The state Department of Health and Human Services took over administration of the Bertie County Department of Human Services Office of Child Welfare in May.

Once there, state employees found a messy office filled with untrained workers who didn’t understand state laws or policies, and a manager who signed documents that an attorney contacted. by Carolina Public Press said to be a violation of state law.

“There is a complete absence of leadership on child protective services, starting with the director of BCDSS,” DHHS’s initial assessment of the county’s child welfare office said in a written report. last month.

In May, the state Department of Health and Human Services made the unusual move to take over the office of child welfare within the Bertie County DSS.

Former director Cindy Perry had held various positions with the Bertie County Department of Social Services since 1990, progressing from someone who verifies clients’ income to various social work positions.

Departmental Director of Human Resources Neighborhood Cortneysaid the state’s Office of Human Resources said Perry was qualified to be a manager when she was hired for the role in 2016.

Perry’s retirement took effect July 1, according to a document signed by herself and the county executive John Vaughan II June 24. Perry earned $84,547 a year. Two others have left the office since May, a social work supervisor and an income maintenance worker, according to county records.

Bertie County is part of a larger judicial district in the eastern part of the state that includes Hertford, Northampton, and Halifax counties. Social workers often traveled to these counties to ask judges to sign an unsecured custody order.

Such orders are typically sought when there is a “substantial risk of bodily harm or injury” to a child, said David Wijewickramaan attorney who has represented families in western North Carolina.

“The court will allow a remand for a very short time to prepare the case for a hearing, to determine the veracity of the allegations,” Wijewickrama said.

“DHHS also found that the director signed multiple insecure custody orders,” DHHS’ assessment of the office said. “Only a judge or a person designated by a judge has the power to issue a custody order for a minor.”

Wijewickrama said “it is illegal for a director to sign an order. … If a child is removed under a protection order signed by a director, it is not legally binding.

He also said his signing in place of a judge was an “unauthorized practice of law.”

Wijewickrama is part of a team of attorneys representing children and families in Cherokee County who have been separated by Cherokee County DSS workers without any judicial or legal oversight. A father and daughter won a $4.6 million federal jury verdict last year.

Cherokee County commissioners voted last month to settle the nearly two dozen remaining cases for $42 million.

DHHS says Bertie’s manager signed “several” of those orders. Wijewickrama said removing a child without judicial authority could violate that child’s constitutional rights.

The office had no organized filing system, and sometimes documents were filed in courthouses outside of Bertie County. Workers did not search for records in other counties when a state computer system showed a family had histories with other county child welfare agencies, the document said.

“Documentation in all files is minimal to non-existent,” the assessment states.

The office also did not have a daily schedule to ensure that someone was available to take reports of abuse.

“A community member reported trying to call a (child protection) report every day for a week with no answer,” the state report said.

More than two months after the state took over the child welfare division, a strong team of DHHS workers remains on site.

Currently, four state child protection workers are assigned to day-to-day work in the county, according to a DHHS statement to the CPP, along with two consultants serving as supervisors for child protection staff. There are also two contractors, experienced state-supervised social workers, who mentor Bertie County workers.

In addition to that, “two DHHS section chiefs serve as program managers for the Bertie County Division of Child Welfare,” the statement said. “They rotate responsibilities every two weeks and are on site at least once a month for a week at a time.”

Two other high-level DHHS staff members share administration with the county’s child welfare department and are in the county at least two days a week.

Wider issues

The state is also reviewing the administration of Bertie County Adult Protective Services, said Greg AtkinsBertie County DSS Board Member and former County Sheriff.

The state said decisions about vulnerable adults were “made without proper legal authority,” according to an assessment from the county’s Office of Adult Protective Services written last week.

Although he was not aware of any criminal investigation, Atkins said he wondered if there was one.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a criminal investigation down the road somewhere because I don’t know the depth of that yet,” he said.

Calls to phone numbers associated with Perry went unanswered.

DSS Board Hired Retired Lenoir County DSS Director jack jones as Acting Director of Bertie DSS. He worked as an acting director for other counties in eastern North Carolina, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald reported earlier this month.

Perry initially wanted to fight a forced layoff, according to the News-Herald, but county paperwork said she retired instead.

When asked how long he thought DHHS would work with Bertie County, Atkins said as long as it would take.

“We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to resolve this issue as best we can to ensure this never happens again,” Atkins said.

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