GASTONIA, N.C. -- Two couples hoping to adopt the same baby: It’s a case that guarantees an unhappy ending for somebody.
The quandary started earlier this year when the Gaston County Department of Social Services removed a toddler from its foster family and placed the child with another couple. DSS gave no reason for its actions.
Five weeks later, the DSS director overturned the Adoption Committee’s decision and the child was returned to the original couple.
Now, as a legal fight brews over custody of the child, Gaston officials say they’re taking steps to reduce the chance of something like this happening again.
But Chrissy Smith of Concord is still attached to the little boy she held onto briefly. She thinks the DSS director’s action misguided and grounds for a management overhaul.
“This was a huge decision,” said Smith, 34. “He (DSS director) had never met the child. You should know a case inside and out before you make a decision like this. My husband and I were treated very unfairly. We’d done nothing wrong.”
The Smiths had been trying to have children for years with no success. After she’d suffered seven miscarriages they decided to adopt a child through the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. Going through an adoption agency would be a faster process than becoming foster parents.
Since they were an interracial couple, the Smiths asked for a biracial boy.
In late August, they were told that a 22-month-old biracial toddler was being removed from the Gastonia foster home where he’d been since birth.
The Smiths met with the Gaston DSS Adoption Committee on Aug. 29, spending more than an hour answering questions.
About 45 minutes later, on their way back to Concord, they got a call saying they’d been chosen as the child’s adoptive parents.
“We were very excited,” Smith said. “They told us they’d bring him on Friday.”
When the toddler arrived “there was an instant bond,” she said. “It was as though he’d always known me.”
The Smiths learned the adoption would be finalized by Dec. 1.
‘I was in shock’
Meanwhile, they also learned through medical records that the child had several issues while in foster care. These included possible eating disorders, allergies and a condition called Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a form of child abuse involving exaggerated illness or symptoms.
Smith said that when they had the child examined by doctors “everything was normal.”
“He was well adjusted and so attached to me,” she said. “He was normal and healthy.”
In early October, the Smiths got a call from Gaston DSS that new evidence had been presented in the case and in two hours they’d be there to take the child back to the foster parents.
“I fell to the floor,” Smith said. “I was in shock.”
It was a painful farewell. Smith tried to keep her emotions in check in front of the little boy. She put him in the car seat and kissed his forehead. When she gave him a Teddy bear something clicked.
“He started screaming,” Smith said. “He was so upset.”
As the car drove away trailing the boy’s screams, Smith was overcome with emptiness and depression.
The Smiths met with Gaston DSS officials who said if the couple would sign a confidentiality agreement they’d be told the reason for the decision.
The Smiths refused and hired a lawyer.
In the meantime, they’d read about earlier developments in the case as reported by the Gaston Gazette.
According to the newspaper, the DSS Adoption Committee took the child away from foster parents David and Michelle Buchanan without explanation. Under state law, the meetings are private and the information confidential.
In North Carolina, foster parents are considered service providers and have no legal rights regarding children in their care.
Along with a group of supporters, including other foster parents, the Buchanans went to a Gaston County commissioners meeting and complained about the decision.
DSS director Keith Moon was at the meeting. Later, he reviewed the Adoption Committee’s decision with the help of a consultant, former assistant attorney general for child welfare Kirk Randleman.
Caught in the middle
In an interview last week with The Observer, Moon said he overruled the committee’s decision and allowed the child to be returned to the original foster parents.
Although he wouldn’t discuss specifics of the case, citing confidentiality laws, Moon said “people raised concerns which we responded to.”
“When a problem is brought to you, you deal with the problem,” he said.
Like DSS directors statewide, Moon has authority to overrule the committee’s decision. He said county commissioners didn’t pressure him. It’s the first time he’s overruled the Adoptions Committee in his 12 years as director.
“The board of commissioners never directed me to take action,” he said. “Not in this case or any other case.”
Moon said the Adoption Committee had “taken on too informal a character.”
He’s already reorganized the committee, trimming the dozen or so members down to five. Non-voting members include the DSS lawyer Tereasa Osborne; Cheryl Harris, administrator of the DSS Children & Family Services Division; and a guardian ad litem to represent the interest of children.
“We want (the committee) to be a more businesslike and structured activity,” Moon said. “We want to make sure it makes well-grounded decisions. You can never prevent anything absolutely from happening. But you can take a hard look at the system to see what you can do to minimize problems.”
The revamping included reassigning four social workers who served on the Adoptions Committee.
Moon said was it wasn’t a disciplinary action, but a chance to “get a fresh start.”
As for the Smiths, he called them “good people caught in the middle.”
“It’s tragic,” Moon said. “A sad situation.”
Gaston DSS Board Chairman Tom Keigher, who is also a county commissioner, said he “wasn’t ashamed” of the way Moon handled the case.
Neither the DSS board nor the county commissioners were involved in Moon’s action, he said.
“It was an executive decision the director has the right to do,” he said.
After the foster parents spoke at the commissioners meeting, the board passed a resolution asking legislators to consider providing an ombudsman to get involved with foster parents in the adoption process when there are complications or disagreements.
N.C. Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, said he’ll introduce a bill in the 2013 legislative session to start a pilot program in Gaston “to see if it will work.”
He said issues like the one in Gaston County occur across the state and the current makeup of DSS boards doesn’t include “anyone speaking on behalf of foster parents.”
The Buchanans, who have signed a confidentiality agreement and been advised by DSS not to talk about the case, couldn’t be reached for comment.
For Smith, the steps being taken by Gaston aren’t good enough because they don’t address her problem. In her eyes, the episode is political and has nothing to do with social workers. The experience that has left her “emotionally damaged.”
“I’m not going away,” Smith said. “The only thing I want is my baby back.”