While the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office was occupied with a forgery complaint leveled against state child-services workers in 2015, Bay St. Louis attorney Edward Gibson met with a client whose two children had been sexually abused and infected with gonorrhea while in state custody.
The client, Alexandria Faye, said she received a text message June 11, 2014, from a Mississippi Department of Human Services worker urging her to come to a hospital in Gulfport.
Faye’s two children had been taken into DHS custody after Faye was arrested in February that year. Hancock County’s DHS office then placed the kids in the care of foster parent Erica Weary of Gulfport. The kids, ages 1 and 2 at the time, remained in Weary’s home about four months until DHS workers Harmony Raffeo and Deana Chase took them to a hospital.
“I was at home,” Faye said, recalling the day she learned of the sexual abuse. “I had just got off of work. Harmony Raffeo sent a text to my phone, and she said, ‘Alex, please call me. It’s an emergency.’”
Faye accompanied Raffeo and Chase at Garden Park Medical Center in Gulfport. One of her daughters had tested positive for gonorrhea.
“The next thing that popped into my mind,” she said, “is ‘How did this happen and is my other daughter OK?’”
The 1-year-old was not tested but was suffering from symptoms that prompted medical staff to treat both children for gonorrhea. The 2-year-old tested positive for the STD and had symptoms indicating she had been penetrated.
In addition to treatment at Garden Park, the children underwent exams and other treatment at Coastal Family Health in Gulfport and Children’s Hospital in New Orleans.
“I said, ‘How could you let this happen? You must have not been checking up on them,’” Faye said. “And (Raffeo) said she might have let time slip away from her.”
Raffeo had previously told Faye the foster home had only two people living there — a woman and an 8-year-old girl.
“I guess she told me that just to ease my mind,” Faye told the Sun Herald. “I did not find out who-all was actually in the home until the incident.”
When asked again, Raffeo changed her answer. It went from the foster mom and the 8-year-old girl to the foster mom, the 8-year-old girl, a 17-year-old son and a boyfriend who was coming in and out of the home, Faye said.
Faye said when she asked if anyone in the home had been tested for gonorrhea, Raffeo told her the foster family would be interviewed and urged her to stop worrying about the investigation.
Gulfport police also responded to the hospital. The police report confirms the foster mother’s son was in the home but made no mention of a boyfriend or 8-year-old daughter.
The report describes the case as a “sexual battery” of a child, yet the report’s narrative contains only one sentence: “DHS supervisor Deana Chase stated that on 11 June 2014 at about 1615 hrs she learned that (redacted), a 2 year old w/f under DHS care, was possible sexually abused by an unknown person at 14095 Gladys St.”
No follow-up interviews or other actions to investigate the crime are indicated on the report. The District Attorney’s Office did not learn of the sexual battery until it was published in the Sun Herald. The case has since been closed.
Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said they were unable to find a suspect.
“So that’s it?” Faye said. “They just quit? They’re not investigating at all? They just quit?”
The only way to contract gonorrhea is through sexual contact. It takes two to five days to develop symptoms after an infection, which is known as the incubation period.
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,” he said. “In other words, we know it happened while the child was in custody.”
Gibson is representing Faye in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against DHS, Raffeo, Weary, Hancock County DHS supervisor Tequila Hall and others connected to the case.
A ‘troubling problem’
Despite having represented Faye in federal court and in Hancock County Youth Court, Gibson has been denied access to Faye’s Youth Court and DHS records because of confidentiality rules.
“I don’t have access to those records right now, even after I have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit,” he said in a March interview, “but more importantly, even after I have made an appearance in that case.”
According to the lawsuit, Faye is claiming negligence on the part of DHS for the agency’s failure to screen the foster family and regularly inspect the foster home.
Much of Gibson’s case weighs heavily on the DHS and Youth Court records. For instance, DHS case-log notes may contain answers to when and how often the foster home was inspected.
“Access to the record is a sincere and troubling problem,” he said. “Ms. Faye’s case is now sealed, even to me as an attorney of record.”
The confidentiality rules also create frustrations for DHS and youth court officials — they are restricted from making public comments about specific cases.
“It’s just not working anymore,” Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano said. “And it’s not working because it’s being used to beat the system over the head as opposed to protecting the kids.”
Just as the confidentiality creates the potential for an official to misrepresent facts or conceal the truth in a youth court case, it creates the same potential for a parent to lie in court, Deano said.
“If everyone else knew the facts, they could form their own opinion,” she said.
Such is the case for many DHS workers, who have very difficult jobs, and have had to watch in silence as the agency’s reputation has been sullied.
Sheriff Adam pointed out almost any large organization will inevitably have a few bad-apple employees.
“They have good people there,” he said “We’re not saying everybody at the agency’s bad nor have we ever said that.”
Since early 2014, when the Sun Herald began investigating allegations surrounding the child-services system, there have been several changes.
Most notably, the DHS child-protection division is now a separate agency with a director who reports directly to the governor in accordance with new legislation passed in 2016. It has rebranded itself as Mississippi Child Protective Services and has begun to transition out from under the umbrella of DHS.
CPS Director David Chandler said he is open to the idea of removing the system’s blanket of secrecy and allowing youth court judges to decide on a case-by-case basis whether confidentiality is needed, as all other court systems do.
He also said he intends to make the agency more forthright and transparent than it has ever been.
“If some employee of our agency is committing a crime or there is evidence that he or she may be committing a crime, then I notify the local law enforcement in that area,” he said. “That’ll be my practice.”
Erica Weary, who fostered the two toddlers who were sexually abused, is no longer a licensed foster parent. CPS Special Investigations Director Tonya Rogillio said Weary’s foster home has been closed since December, the same month the Sun Herald first reported on the sexual abuse.
Hancock County’s foster-care rate has decreased but still remains the highest per-capita foster care rate in the state.
Hancock County has hired a public defender to represent indigent parents in its Youth Court. Chandler said he believes state leaders will soon follow suit to install court-appointed lawyers at youth courts statewide.
Judge Deano said media coverage of the foster-care crisis was part of the reason she was able to get more services.
“I think it always helps when you have attention because then people talk about it; people take ownership in it,” she said. “It has caused people to call me out of the blue and say, ‘Hey, we’d like to start offering AA classes. We’d like to start offering counseling.’”
Three civil rights lawsuits, including Marie Gill’s and Alexandria Faye’s, have been filed against DHS in federal court. All three are from Hancock County. DHS has since filed responses, denying any wrongdoing in the cases.
In its response to Gill’s case, DHS invoked its qualified immunity privilege. Qualified immunity is a state statute that exempts the agency from lawsuit claims based on an employee’s actions.
‘A system of no accountability’
The Coast’s three youth court judges each said most of the cases coming through their courts are those of child neglect rather than physical or sexual abuse.
Only 8 percent of substantiated reports nationwide involve physical injury to the child, according to a 2015 study by Dale Cecka, published in the Catholic University Law Review.
With that point in mind, Jennifer Berry made an argument in support of openness.
“The majority of these cases are not that serious,” she said. “But (DHS is) keeping them confidential, they say, to protect the children.
“But in the really bad cases, where children are sexually abused, physically abused, those go to criminal court, and those aren’t kept confidential.”
Criminal court records and proceedings are open to the public. Therefore, when a case of child mistreatment comes under investigation by law enforcement, the public has access to the details of the incident via police and criminal-court records. Typically, only the names of the children are redacted.
“So what the youth court has right now is a system where they’re able to keep confidential all the close calls,” Berry said. “All the close calls that aren’t so clear-cut, that people might have a problem with, that’s what they’re able to keep confidential. There’s just no reason for that other than to protect the court and the system itself.”
Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso made similar comments in a March interview.
“I have come to conclude that the confidentiality has created a system of no accountability,” she said. “And until we start a discussion of why is it and can we do better, it’s going to continue the way it is.”
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.