Hancock County

Wrongdoing denied in pair of DHS lawsuits, records show

By WESLEY MULLER

wmuller@sunherald.com

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WESLEY MULLER/SUN HERALD 
 Watch Me Grow Learning Center, a Gulfport day care under state contract to care for foster children, is one of the defendants in a lawsuit alleging a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old were sexually assaulted and contracted gonorrhea while in DHS custody.
WESLEY MULLER/SUN HERALD Watch Me Grow Learning Center, a Gulfport day care under state contract to care for foster children, is one of the defendants in a lawsuit alleging a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old were sexually assaulted and contracted gonorrhea while in DHS custody.

HANCOCK COUNTY -- Defendants denied any wrongdoing in responses filed in federal court last week to two lawsuits against the state Department of Human Services.

One lawsuit involves plaintiff Alexandria Faye, who said her kids, ages 1 and 2, were sexually assaulted and contracted gonorrhea while in the custody of Hancock County DHS.

The other involves plaintiff Marie Gill, who charges Hancock County DHS workers falsified child-custody documents to "steal" her three children.

Both cases are being heard in U.S. District Court for Mississippi's Southern Division.

One of the defendants in Faye's case is Watch Me Grow Learning Center, a Gulfport day care under state contract to care for foster children.

"Plaintiff has failed to present proof, other than speculation, that (the two children) were sexually abused while in the care, custody or control of Watch Me Grow or persons under the control of Watch Me Grow," the day care said in its response filed Jan. 28. "This Defendant denies that there was any harm to the children caused by Watch Me Grow or any of its employees." The other defendants in the Faye case have not yet filed responses. They are the MDHS; Hancock County DHS; county DHS employees Tequila Hall and Harmony Raffeo; the children's foster parent, Erica Weary; and other unknown individuals.

According to the lawsuit, a Hancock County Youth Court judge placed the two children in DHS custody after the mother's arrest Feb. 19, 2014. The suit alleges they were sexually abused between Feb. 20, 2014, and June 11, 2014, while they were in Weary's home on Gladys Street in Gulfport.

On June 11, 2014, two DHS workers took the children to Garden Park Medical Center, where one tested positive for gonorrhea and the other suffered from a vaginal discharge. The only way to contract gonorrhea, which has an incubation period of two to five days, is through sexual contact.

Faye's attorney, Edward Gibson, said the incubation period is the time it takes to develop symptoms after a person is infected.

"The child was in custody longer than the scientifically recognized incubation period," Gibson said. "In other words, we know it happened while the child was in custody."

The suit says the day care failed to properly screen its employees. In addition, the suit says, Weary failed to properly monitor, direct and supervise her home while the children were there. Faye also claims Hancock County DHS and MDHS failed to follow agency protocol by not doing background checks on foster parents.

On June 12, 2014, Gulfport police responded to the sexual battery complaint reported by Hancock County DHS supervisor Deanna Chase. The police report, obtained through a Sun Herald public records request, lists the location of the offense at a home on Gladys Street and the status of the criminal investigation as "suspended/inactive."

Chase told officers a 2-year-old "under DHS care" was possibly "sexually abused by an unknown person" at the home, according to the police report.

Forgery suit

DHS and its Hancock County office responded to Gill's lawsuit by invoking immunity from any lawsuits filed by citizens.

In its response, DHS cited a state statute that exempts the agency from lawsuit claims based on the performance or the failure to "perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a governmental entity or employee whether or not the discretion is abused."

"DHS is entitled to sovereign immunity as enshrined by the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which bars all of Plaintiffs' federal claims against DHS," the response says.

In her lawsuit, Gill said her husband had taken their three children to his parents' home in Waveland. When Gill visited that home and asked the paternal grandparents to return her kids, they refused to do so, according to the lawsuit.

Gill contacted Waveland police, which called Hancock County DHS.

DHS worker Patricia Piazza, a defendant in the suit, arrived, spoke to the grandparents, then told Gill her children would remain with the grandparents, the suit said.

She handed Gill DHS documents to sign, and when Gill initially refused, "Piazza threatened to place the children in foster care." Gill asked for a copy of the documents, but Piazza refused, prompting Gill to take cellphone photos of them as she reluctantly signed them, according to the claim.

Two days later, Gill met with DHS and was provided a copy of the documents she had signed, but they included more allegations that made it appear Gill was unfit to care for the children, the suit claims.

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