Suit: DHS worker ‘unlawfully’ searched home and ‘threatened’ couple

A Lee County couple filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the Mississippi Department of Human Services and a former worker in Hancock County, alleging the worker unconstitutionally searched their home and made false statements in court that led to the unwarranted removal of their children.

Jennifer and Scott Berry, who previously lived in Hancock County, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Gulfport in response to their run-in in spring 2014 with DHS’ child-services division, now known as Child Protection Services. The couple’s story was spotlighted in August in a Sun Herald investigation into the child-welfare system.

The lawsuit names then–DHS investigator Fegee Simms as one of the defendants. It accuses Simms of “unlawfully” searching their home and initiating removal of one of the couple’s children without “a court order or any justification.”

The worker visited the couple’s home, claiming she had received an anonymous complaint that there was no food in the house. The worker searched and photographed the contents of the home without the couple’s permission. When the Berrys protested the search, Simms “threatened to initiate proceedings against the family if they did not comply with her requests,” the lawsuit says.

The suit also accuses Simms of questioning the couple’s children without their consent and willfully ignoring evidence from mental-health professionals that the Berrys were good parents.

“Without permission, absent a warrant, and against Mrs. Berry’s protests, Defendant Simms took each child into a private room for questioning,” the lawsuit says.

The Berrys’ lawsuit says Simms made false statements to the Hancock County Youth Court leading to the emergency removal of the couple’s five children. Simms falsely told the couple the court had ordered them to have no contact with their children, despite the order specifically stating, “Scott and Jennifer Berry, shall have visitation with the minor children,” the suit says.

The Sun Herald’s investigation found the same DHS worker had a record of criminal charges from two states, including two counts of making false statements to law enforcement.

The Berrys point this out in their lawsuit, saying agency officials failed to conduct a “bare minimum investigation” into Simms’ background prior to hiring her.

The lawsuit accuses Simms of acting intentionally careless and negligent by failing to properly investigate; making false statements in court; misrepresenting to the Berrys the contents of the youth court order; threatening, intimidating and abusing the powers of her office; and failing to adhere to appropriate procedures and regulations.

The lawsuit also alleges DHS failed to uphold a decade-old federal consent decree by allowing workers to become overburdened with case loads.

The Berrys are represented by New Orleans attorney Mauricio Sierra and Bay St. Louis attorney Edward Gibson.

A lawsuit represents one side of a story. The defendants have not yet filed a response.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller