Did a social worker lie to take away this Mississippi mom’s child?

FROM PART 2: In March 2014, a Hancock County couple, along with their five children, were thrust into a child-protection case that left the family torn apart for months. Almost a year after getting their kids back, the couple watched closely as a familiar name emerged from a criminal investigation involving a child-services worker accused of forgery.

A single mother from rural Hancock County walked into the sheriff’s office in 2015 with a stack of documents and an allegation that sparked criminal investigations into what may be the most secretive government entity in Mississippi. The woman told investigators a child-services worker had forged a document and used it to take away her child.

The allegation, described as “disturbing” by Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam, was the first of several lodged against the Mississippi Department of Human Services throughout 2015. The other allegations included document tampering and children being sexually abused while in DHS custody.

It was Jan. 6, 2015, when Mindi Stiglet filed a criminal complaint on the alleged forgery.

The night before, she had attended a crowded town hall meeting hosted by state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who was spearheading the formation of a local task force to deal with what he described as a “crisis” in Hancock County’s foster-care system.

Seating and even standing space were hard to find, prompting dozens, Stiglet included, to gather outside the county annex building. Documents in hand, Stiglet spoke briefly with a Sun Herald reporter.

“Look at these two signatures,” she said, pointing out prominent differences between them. “This one is forged.”

She later noticed Adam exiting the board room and approached him. Their conversation was short. The sheriff told her to drop by his office during business hours.

The 24-year-old is no stranger to DHS, having herself grown up in the state’s custody until she turned 18.

“They made my life a lot worse,” she said of DHS in an interview in February. “Snatched me from my parents. Snatched me from my grandparents. Just in and out of the (group) home, from this place to this place, bouncing me around.”

While growing up in the system, she wasn’t allowed to maintain contact with her mother, she said.

“It’s like a repeated pattern,” she said. “I can’t see my kids now.”

Most who attended that town hall meeting seemed eager to give lengthy accounts of some type of grievance. The common theme among them: DHS and its judicial counterpart, the Hancock County Youth Court, are overly aggressive when it comes to seizing children. An attorney who addressed the task force drew wide applause from the crowd when she said not all parents with drug problems abuse and neglect their children.

Stiglet, on the other hand, stuck to the facts of her case and had what she said was evidence of a crime. Any initial skepticism the sheriff may have had went away as the case unfolded. Sheriff’s investigators eventually tracked down and questioned the DHS worker they suspected of the forgery.

The documents and the investigators’ interrogation of the caseworker substantiated Stiglet’s complaint, Chief Investigator Glenn Grannan said in a February 2015 interview with the Sun Herald.

“The caseworker refused to cooperate with the investigation and gave statements that were inconsistent — inconsistent at best,” Grannan said at the time.

The investigation unfolds

Records from the Sheriff’s Office list 41-year-old Fegee Estell Simms, also known as Fegee Watson, as the DHS worker suspected of the forgery. This was the same case worker who had accused Jennifer and Scott Berry of mentally abusing their children in 2014. Simms has not been charged in this case.

There are marked differences between Stiglet and the Berrys. Stiglet is a single mother who battled drug addiction much of her adult life, beginning when she was a teenager in DHS custody. She also has a criminal record, though not for any violent crimes or crimes against children.

But the DHS worker who handled both the Berry and Stiglet cases also has a criminal record.

Simms was employed as a state child-services worker despite having been arrested four times on multiple charges in Louisiana and Georgia. The charges include submitting falsified information to police, simple battery, probation violation and other misdemeanors, according to records from law enforcement agencies.

DHS spokesman Paul Nelson could not provide any information on Simms’ hiring but said criminal history does not always disqualify a prospective employee.

“Occasionally, a person with minor or very old criminal history — an old misdemeanor or a few traffic tickets — is hired, when the person’s qualifications and positive attributes are significant and the person appears to have been sufficiently rehabilitated,” Nelson said. “However, many persons with criminal history, misdemeanors included, are denied employment.”

The forgery investigation revolved around two “case plan” forms, commonly known as service agreements, which DHS uses to outline various tasks a parent must complete to regain custody.

The existence of two different case plans for the same case was itself suspicious to detectives. Under questioning, Simms told investigators it was not customary to have two case plans for the same case, according to a report written by former Investigator Steve Saucier, who handled the forgery case until taking a job elsewhere late last year.

The first case plan was filled out and signed Dec. 4, 2013. It contained seven tasks, most of which are standard and include drug screenings, parenting classes and a mental-health evaluation.

The second case plan was the one investigators believe was forged. Stiglet’s supposed signature appears markedly different from her other signature samples.

The most significant difference, however, was a single sentence added to the second case plan that allowed Stiglet supervised visits with her daughter. The first case plan made no mention of visitation, and Stiglet said Simms refused her pleas for visitation. Furthermore, her child was living with a foster family in Michigan.

Though she had completed the tasks listed on the first case plan, Stiglet’s efforts became irrelevant when the second case plan surfaced and she was accused of not wanting to visit her child. Her purported failure to exercise visitation became a primary factor in DHS’ petition to terminate her parental rights, records show.

“The document in question appears to have a direct impact on Hancock County Youth Court’s decision to TPR (terminate parental rights),” the detective’s report said.

Blanket of secrecy

Despite progress in the criminal investigation, difficulties have arisen because it involves an accusation against an employee of a state agency with great autonomy and confidentiality privileges. DHS and the county youth court system both operate under a blanket of secrecy largely unmatched by other public entities in the state.

In neighboring Harrison County, Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso and her administrator, Cindy Alexander, are pushing for new legislation that will make the system more transparent.

“There’s just no accountability in the system, whatsoever,” Alfonso said. “On the abuse and neglect side, you don’t know if the Department of Human Services is doing their job. You don’t know if I’m doing my job. You don’t know what we’re doing.”

Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano has joined Alfonso in calling for reforms. Deano said the system’s secrecy has led to public distrust, making it difficult for youth courts to get necessary funding from county leaders, who, like the general public, know little or nothing about what goes on there.

“The very protection that is designed to keep the children safe is being used in a manner to damage the system, not help it,” Deano said. “All this secrecy is keeping me from getting the help I really need for these children.”

In recent decades, a number of states — either through their legislatures or courts — have opened juvenile proceedings with favorable results, according to a 2006 Indiana Law Review article by William Horne.

“In some cases, investigative news reports provided the impetus,” Horne wrote. “More often, and significantly, juvenile judges and juvenile justice officials brought about the change.”

Roughly a third of all states, including Mississippi, allow no public access at all to juvenile proceedings or records. Most other states allow some form of limited access, and about 14 operate under a directly open system, Horne said.

Alfonso said the conversation for reform must move past the system’s knee-jerk reaction of refusing change.

In an opposing view, Jackson County Youth Court Judge Sharon Sigalas said she feels an open system would only hurt children more.

“Children are hurt enough in the very beginning when they’re taken out of their home,” Sigalas said. “They’re already traumatized enough by being in foster care versus everybody they go to school with, they go to church with, their friends knowing what’s happened to them.”

But that isn’t likely to happen because the identities of children would be redacted from the record, Alfonso said. She said people should research the issue and consider the facts and logic outlined in peer-reviewed studies such as Horne’s.

“By and large, (studies) have concluded that secrecy benefits adults, such as welfare officials and parents — not children,” Horne wrote.

“It has only protected the system in Hancock County,” Sheriff Adam said.

In a May interview with David Chandler, the state’s new child-services director, the Sun Herald posed the question: Who is the watchdog overseeing DHS?

“The watchdog for our agency? That’s the Sun Herald,” he said with a grin. He added state legislators and a DHS internal affairs division also provide oversight.

Investigation runaround

Before filing a criminal complaint with the Sheriff’s Office, Stiglet tried to resolve the issue internally, seeking help from officials within DHS. She was given a “Formal Grievance” form, which she filled out and filed Nov. 5, 2014.

In it, she makes several complaints and directly accuses her caseworker of forgery.

Some of her other complaints are shared by many parents caught up in the system. Parents interviewed by the Sun Herald complained of caseworkers refusing to meet or return phone calls; caseworkers threatening to take away children if parents don’t sign documents; receiving no notification of court dates; and caseworkers failing to adhere to visitation rights.

It appears the agency took some action in response to Stiglet’s complaints. Caseworker log notes indicate Simms made a final entry the day before Stiglet filed the grievance. A social work supervisor’s entry Nov. 5, 2014, noted Stiglet’s case was being transferred.

When Stiglet filed her criminal complaint about two months later, the sheriff decided to send her case to the State Attorney General Jim Hood and ask for an investigation by state authorities — a decision he later came to regret.

Instead of launching an investigation, the AG’s office sent the case to DHS, recommending the agency discipline the caseworker, Adam said.

The forgery investigation had not been made public at the time, and detectives reluctantly and quietly moved on to other things. Stiglet’s case went cold until about a month later, when the Sheriff’s Office received a separate but strikingly similar complaint from another parent.

Click here to read Part 4 of Fostering Secrets.

To read the entire Fostering Secrets series, click here.

About the Sun Herald’s investigation

Over the past 18 months, the Sun Herald has conducted exclusive interviews and filed public-records requests with several law enforcement agencies. The paper uncovered audio recordings, court filings and thousands of pages of documents related to how the state appears to have mishandled child-protection cases.

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