HANCOCK COUNTY -- Attorney General Jim Hood could take over the Hancock County Sheriff's Office's investigation into allegations of forged or falsified documents used in Department of Human Services child-custody cases, a notion that doesn't sit well with county officials.
The probe into Hancock County DHS has led to recent discussions between Hood and prosecutors from the 2nd Circuit District Attorney's Office that focused on the attorney general taking over the lead, officials said. A meeting on the matter is expected next week.
Officials allege DHS employees used forged or falsified documents in child-custody cases, some of which resulted in children taken from parents and placed in homes as far away as Michigan.
Chris Daniel, an assistant district attorney for Hancock County, who has been a part of the dialog with the Attorney General's Office, said he would like to see an outside agency take the lead in the investigation, which Sheriff Ricky Adam spearheaded in late February.
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"When you have an outside agency come in, it helps with that perception of fairness so that the public has confidence in it," Daniel said.
He said the state's Public Integrity Division, the investigative arm of Hood's office, would be the ideal agency to handle the case.
"They also have a much broader view of things since they handle it on a statewide basis," Daniel said. "And they have prosecuted, I believe, DHS workers before in other places."
Still, some county authorities expressed little enthusiasm about the attorney general's possible involvement.
Last month, the sheriff announced his office had launched its own formal probe into DHS after Hood's office declined to pursue it, referring to the case as a "personnel matter."
"If they're not going to do it, somebody else has to," Adam said at the time.
Sheriff's investigators received the first forgery complaint several months ago and determined the evidence warranted a criminal investigation by a higher authority, prompting the unsuccessful query of the attorney general's involvement, Adam said.
"We gave them every opportunity from the very beginning to get involved in this case," Adam said of the Attorney General's Office.
On Feb. 19, the day before the sheriff began his investigation, Hood's office responded to Sun Herald questions about a forgery complaint.
The initial response by Jan Schaefer, Hood's public information officer, seemed to indicate the Attorney General's Office was unfamiliar with any DHS investigation in Hancock County.
"That does not appear to be ours," she wrote in an email Feb. 19, adding additional questions should be sent to DHS.
Questions sent to DHS, however, produced no response.
Schaefer emailed the Sun Herald again the next day, altering her initial response.
"As it turns out, we reviewed the facts of the case as provided to us by the Hancock Sheriff's Office and based on those facts, have determined this to be a personnel matter for DHS," she wrote.
It's unclear what information or evidence sheriff's investigators provided about the case when they first requested involvement from Hood's office.
On Wednesday, Schaefer would not confirm if Hood will be a part of the probe.
She said, however, her office's Feb. 20 response to the Sun Herald still stood.
So far, the investigation has not produced any criminal charges, but at least one DHS employee has been terminated as a result of the allegations, state officials said.
A records request filed by the Sea Coast Echo produced a response from DHS on March 12, confirming that a named former case worker, who is under investigation, is no longer employed by DHS.
A public-records request sent to DHS from the Sun Herald is pending.