They said she drank nail polish remover—but secret photos told a different tale

FROM PART 3: Hancock County detectives hit a speed bump in the forgery investigation involving a child-services worker. The case stalled until about a month later, when someone else came forward with a similar allegation.

In January 2015, Hancock County sheriff’s investigators began probing Mindi Stiglet’s complaint accusing Mississippi Department of Human Services worker Fegee Simms in the forging of a document that led to Stiglet’s child being taken from her and put in foster care. But just as the investigation gained footing, detectives hit a roadblock when the Attorney General’s Office declined to pursue charges.

Stiglet’s case had gone cold until about a month later, when Marie Gill walked into the Sheriff’s Office and told a story that sounded familiar to investigators. She said child-services workers had falsified documents in an attempt to take away her kids.

Gill, repeating allegations she made in a federal lawsuit, said it all began when she was involved in a nonviolent domestic dispute with her husband’s parents. She eventually called Waveland police. The responding officer, following protocol, contacted DHS.

During any domestic dispute between a couple who has kids, police are supposed to contact DHS regardless of whether the children are involved in any way.

While on the scene, DHS worker Patricia Piazza filled out and signed a safety-plan agreement, then asked Gill to sign it. Gill said when she refused, the worker threatened to take her kids into custody. The name of the other caseworker is unknown.

“She told me that if I didn’t sign it, she would take my children and put them into a home and I wouldn’t see them,” Gill said.

Gill agreed to sign, but when she was refused a copy, she secretly took cellphone photos of the safety plan, then signed it and gave it back to Piazza. The photos show the caseworker had signed the safety plan but Gill had not yet signed it.

Two days later, she and a relative went to Hancock County’s DHS office to find out when she would have a Youth Court hearing because she couldn’t reach anyone by phone.

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This illustration shows the differences between the original safety plan photographed by Marie Gill, right, and the one she picked up at the Mississippi Department of Human Services office several days later. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

When a DHS employee pulled out a copy of the safety plan, Gill said it was completely different from the one she had signed. Someone had filled in lines that had been blank when she signed the document. The alterations included sentences saying Gill admitting to drinking a bottle of nail polish remover and agreeing not to see her children until the DHS investigation was completed.

Gill brought the discrepancies to their attention and showed her cellphone photos to agency supervisors. Her case was transferred to Harrison County the following day.

Piazza’s attorney, Jim Davis, said Piazza has passed a lie detector test that indicated she did not falsify any documents.

Sheriff takes action

With multiple allegations of the same nature, Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam launched criminal investigations focused primarily on Stiglet’s case. In statements to the press, he released only minor details regarding the cases but held little back on why he believed he had to act.

The sheriff said he was forced to launch a formal investigation after Attorney General Jim Hood’s office called the case a “personnel matter” and declined to pursue it.

“If they’re not going to do it, somebody else has to,” Adam said at the time, adding that forging a document to take away a child is almost as severe an allegation as kidnapping.

As media reports rolled out, Hood assigned investigators from his Public Integrity Division to assist the Sheriff’s Office. DHS internal affairs also joined the probe.

News of the situation quickly spread through the community, opening a floodgate of other parents coming forward with complaints against the agency. Within the year, Hancock County became ground zero for investigations, lawsuits and legislative inquiries.

The state Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review committee released a 100-page report in summer 2015 concerning the root of Hancock County’s foster-care crisis.

The committee concluded the problem was internal deficiencies and irregular practices within the county’s DHS office and its Youth Court.

Investigative hiccups

Gill regained custody of her children about a month later and in September filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against DHS and the workers who handled her case.

Her attorney, Edward Gibson, said the Harrison County Youth Court found nothing to warrant removal of Gill’s children.

“Harrison County dismissed the case at the first hearing,” he said. “Judge Alfonso considered it purely a domestic matter for chancery court and dismissed it.”

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Bay St. Louis attorney Edward Gibson talks on February 10, 2016 about the challenges of representing a client in Youth Court in Mississippi. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Stiglet, however, has not fared as well. The Sheriff’s Office has hit several roadblocks in the forgery investigation.

Investigators subpoenaed files from the DHS office but did not find the original ink-on-paper document that was allegedly forged. They needed the original to obtain the most conclusive handwriting analysis, but DHS claimed it had been lost, the sheriff said.

Adam believes the damage was done when Hood’s office first diverted the case to DHS as a personnel matter.

“It gave them a heads up,” Adam said, adding he believes the original was intentionally destroyed.

Julia Bryan, DHS spokeswoman at the time, dismissed any intentional wrongdoing and said the document could easily have been misplaced.

“As to the questions regarding documents, it is within appropriate protocol to ensure an original document, if required, is in a case file,” she said. “However, statistics show that filing systems, which rely on paper documents for record management, are subject to being misplaced or misfiled.”

Nonetheless, investigators submitted the photocopy of the case plan to the State Forensics Lab. The lab’s forensic document examiner found a high probability Stiglet’s signature was forged, Hancock County Chief Deputy Don Bass said.

The lab is still waiting for the Sheriff’s Office to provide additional signature samples in order to determine who committed the forgery.

Rigo Vargas, the lab’s forensic document examiner, gave an interview to the Sun Herald in August on how handwriting analysis is conducted.

Ideally, in order for document examiners to render an opinion on who may have forged a document, he said, law enforcement should obtain a warrant compelling the suspect to sit down and sign the victim’s name about 25 times on an electronic pad provided and monitored by the document examiner.

The process gives a handwriting expert enough comparison samples and electronic data to render a conclusion, he said.

In a November interview, Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker agreed with Vargas’ assessment of how a handwriting investigation is typically conducted, likening it to the way police would obtain a warrant to draw blood from a DUI suspect.

It’s unclear why the Sheriff’s Office has not followed through on the handwriting analysis. No charges have been filed in the case, which has stalled and restarted several times since it began.

So far, only administrative action and the termination of a DHS worker has taken place in Hancock County. Simms was no longer employed there as of Feb. 28, 2015, according to records from the agency.

Click here to read part 5 of Fostering Secrets.

Click here to view the entire series.

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 several child-protection cases.