Lawyers: separation of children through child welfare services ‘an ongoing form of torture that America does to Black families’

By: - February 20, 2023 4:07 pm
Toia Potts appears via Zoom for a press conference calling for the state to let her family members in Georgia take in her two boys.

Toia Potts hasn’t seen her children in years. She said she has done everything the Division of Social Services has asked since her two boys entered the foster care system in 2018, but authorities still terminated her parental rights — and won’t consider allowing her family in Georgia to adopt the children so they can stay connected to their kin.

“Even if the court didn’t decide to put my children back with me, they should have always considered my family,” Potts said Monday. “I just feel like they threw my whole family away.”

Potts participated in a Zoom press conference Monday calling on authorities to let the two young children live with their family in Georgia. Potts’ attorneys filed a writ of mandamus filed last week asking the Durham Department of Social Services to, among other things, process paperwork advancing the Georgia family’s petition to adopt the boys and pause its consideration of competing adoption petitions filed by a foster family that is unrelated to the children.

“We’re here to talk to you about a a devastating way that the criminal justice system system intersects with social services to tear apart families,” said Dawn Blagrove, attorney and executive director of Emancipate NC.

Blagrove likened Potts’ experience with losing her children to social services to chattel slavery, when enslaved mothers and their children were torn apart when owners split up families.

“This isn’t something that we haven’t seen before,” Blagrove said. “It is an ongoing form of torture that America does to Black families.”

Parental rights terminated

Potts had been visiting visiting North Carolina when she went into labor in August 2017, giving birth to a premature boy with such serious health challenges that he needed to stay in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Potts remained in North Carolina to be close to her newborn.

Durham DSS field a petition alleging abuse in January 2018, after the six-month-old boy was diagnosed with a head bleed, seizures and possible abdominal blood loss at an emergency room. Two years later, the boy’s father admitted to dropping him after he’d been drinking and smoking. A trial court later found this an insufficient explanation for the boy’s condition and injuries, which included malnourishment, skull fractures and retinal hemorrhages.

A district court terminated Potts’ parental rights in July 2021. The Court of Appeals upheld that termination in an opinion issued in September 2022. The North Carolina Supreme Court denied a petition for review of the case in November 2022.

Members of the Woods family tried to adopt the boys after the courts ruled against Potts. They filed petitions for adoption on Feb. 3, 2023. Nothing had been done with the petitions almost a week later, when a legal assistant was told that DSS is “doing an investigation,” so the petitions could not be filed.

“It is not typical for a document to be presented to the court for filing, and not have that document filed immediately, it is highly improper and highly irregular, that this happened,” Blagrove said. “This is highly illegal, highly illegal, and it should not happen. And it is an obstruction of justice.”

The boys’ foster parents, who are not blood-related to them, filed a petition for adoption on Jan. 27, 2023. Blagrove accused the Durham DSS of tearing the children away from a family that loves them, and colluding with other agencies to allow another family to adopt the boys.

“Children thrive in an environment where they’re loved by people who love them innately,” Blagrove said. “And everyone believes that it is in the best interest of all children to be surrounded by family whenever possible.”

‘I need my boys with me’

An investigation by WBTV into Potts’ case and broader issues with the child welfare system in North Carolina found that the turnover rate for frontline child welfare workers in Durham County is 51%, even higher than the statewide 45% turnover rate. A revolving door of social workers leads to delays in reuniting children with their parents — or to place the children in another home.

“Foster care is designed to be a temporary solution. It’s designed to be a respite, to be a salvation for a family in need, and leading to reunification,” said Elizabeth Simpson, Potts’ lawyer for the past three years.

But that’s not how it always works in practice, Simpson said Monday. Instead, Simpson alleged, DSS wanted to place Potts’ children with another family, has “slow-pedaled” paperwork and relied on a slow-moving inter-state bureaucracy to prevent the boys’ blood relatives in Georgia from adopting them.

“Durham has conducted an unfair and railroaded process in this case and has tried to break down the tides to accommodate a non-kin adoption, but there have always been kin ready, willing and able to take in Toia’s kids in Georgia,” Simpson said.

Several of those family members were on the Zoom call Monday, calling on authorities to let the young children live in the five-family, multigenerational home in Georgia. Gusearl Woods, the children’s great-grandmother, said she was retired and had plenty of time to dote on the boys.

“All the love they’d need, they would get it,” she said.

The boys’ grandfather, Felton S. Woods, said there was “more than enough room” to take in the children.

“They got a loving home,” he said. “I need my boys with me.”

Blagrove wondered aloud how many Toia Potts were out there who didn’t have press conferences calling on social services to let their children to stay with blood relatives.

“We need to be asking ourselves how many other children in Durham do not have the voice and the advocacy that these children have, who are just being stolen from their families,” Blagrove said.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.