Can DHS take your kids if you make them do too much homework? This couple says it happened

Four months after child-protection workers showed up at their home to investigate an anonymous complaint, Jennifer and Scott Berry began packing — they couldn’t get out of Hancock County fast enough.

The Berry family endured what they say was the most traumatic experience of their lives, a nightmare that still keeps Scott, Jennifer and their five children awake at night.

“I have said many times that unless I am unfortunate enough to outlive one of my children, I have now experienced the very worst pain I could ever experience,” Jennifer Berry said.

The couple, accused of mistreating their children, fought tirelessly for months to try to prove their innocence, get their kids back and escape the bureaucratic maze of the child protection system.

The alleged mental abuse was based on accusations made by a Mississippi Department of Human Services worker that the couple had unrealistic expectations of their children, such as requiring them to do too much homework.

Can the government take children away from their parents based on such an accusation?

Strong family

Now living about 30 minutes outside of Tupelo, the Berrys are uncommon among those who come into contact with child services. They are a married couple with a strong family support network, and they’ve never been involved in domestic-violence disputes, substance abuse nor any other crimes.

“I think the thing that I need people to understand the most is that we are a normal family like most of the people who will be reading this,” Jennifer Berry said. “That is hard for people to understand because once DHS gets involved with a family, everyone begins to make certain assumptions.”

The Berry family is a bit like the one in TV’s “Brady Bunch.” Two single parents got married — he brought a daughter and she three kids into the marriage. Their union also resulted in their fifth child.

When two DHS workers first arrived in March 2014, saying they had received an anonymous report and had to investigate, the couple was shocked and confused but confident everything would be quickly cleared up, Jennifer Berry said.

“Obviously, like most other people, I never believed that what happened to us could ever actually happen to us,” she said. “We were good parents, we are good parents, so we could never possibly have anything to worry about.”

The Berrys had even more reason to remain confident. Just six months before, social workers from the same DHS office had testified on their behalf in two court hearings in which the couple retained primary custody of Scott Berry’s 6-year-old, who had been removed from her mother’s custody. Those social workers told the court the Berrys were good parents and recommended the girl continue living with them, as she had been for more than a year.

But one thing neither they nor most other people knew at the time was the Hancock County DHS office was dealing with its own problems. By December 2014, the county had a record number of children in DHS custody — the highest per capita in Mississippi with a rate 10 times greater than any other county.

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 apparently mishandled several child-protection cases.

All of the cases share a common denominator: The state child-protection system’s confidentiality hinders scrutiny of any problems or questionable practices. This has led to criminal investigations, civil rights lawsuits and inquiries by a state legislative committee.

The Sun Herald tried to talk to DHS about the cases it found, but the agency said it couldn’t directly comment on specific cases.

A visit by DHS

During the March 2014 visit, DHS workers came into the Berrys’ home, saying they needed to inspect it in order to declare the accusations unsubstantiated.

“They never actually said what the actual accusation was,” Scott Berry said.

DHS, specifically its Division of Family & Children Services, responds to and investigates reports of child abuse and neglect. The agency then presents its findings to a county youth court, which decides where the child in question should live. The choices are typically to either reunite the child with his or her parents, or place the child in state custody — meaning a licensed foster home or shelter.

The workers conducted a thorough search of the home, looking through cabinets, drawers and closets. Then, despite objections, the workers took each child individually into a room, closed the door and performed interviews that were not recorded, Jennifer Berry said.

“When I asked them not to do that, the worker continuously said that these allegations have been made and at this point they could do whatever they needed to do in order to clear it up,” she said. “So, we didn’t have much of a choice, or that’s the way they presented it to us.”

The workers then asked the couple to sign various documents. They initially declined, requesting to have their attorney review the paperwork first.

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Scott Berry listens as his wife, Jennifer, talks on May 11, 2016, about the day the Hancock County Department of Human Services took their children in March 2014. The case was dismissed four months later as being unfounded. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

“That’s when all the threats started,” she said.

The workers told them refusing to sign the papers would provide DHS with enough reason to open a case and remove the children, the couple said.

“Basically insinuating that not cooperating was an indication of guilt,” Scott Berry said.

The couple reluctantly signed the forms.

As the workers were leaving, they finally disclosed the nature of the allegations — someone had claimed there was no food in their home and that the kids were being forced to cook their own meals. This actually put the Berrys at ease because their kitchen was stocked full of food at the time.

They thought they’d never hear from DHS again, but about a week later, the same workers returned with a new allegation.

They accused the couple of isolating their 6-year-old daughter and treating her differently from the other children. DHS considered it an emergency and made the Berrys turn over their daughter to a relative until the case could be heard in Hancock County Youth Court.

Scott Berry called his mother, who came that night to get the child.

Secret courts

The Berrys attended a Youth Court hearing two days later. Speedy adjudication is normal in such situations. By law, a hearing must take place within 72 hours of a child being taken into custody.

Emotionally, for a parent in such a situation, 72 hours might seem entirely too long. But in terms of preparing for a courtroom battle, such short notice can present difficult legal hurdles. The Berrys’ attorney had no way to attend the hearing because of a scheduling conflict, leaving the couple without counsel at a time they needed it most.

Also, parents do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney in youth court proceedings. The constitutional right to counsel applies only to criminal proceedings. Youth court is a kind of hybrid between criminal and civil courts.

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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

“I believe there’s an old case that calls it a quasi-criminal proceeding,” Bay St. Louis attorney Edward Gibson said. “But there are no quasi-constitutional protections. For example, you don’t have a Fifth Amendment right (against self-incrimination in youth court).”

Even parents with representation face difficult and unusual legal hurdles in what is one of the most secretive systems in Mississippi. From the time DHS opens an investigation to the time a youth court makes its final judgment, every step of a child-services case is confidential.

Youth court proceedings are closed to spectators and are not required to be recorded in any way, though some judges use audio recorders. Meetings with DHS, including caseworkers’ interviews with children, are done privately and are not required to be recorded.

As for records, state statute restricts non–youth court officials, including a parent’s attorney, from having copies of records related to any case — even the very cases they defend.

“Our records are available for them to read and review, but currently they are unable to make copies of the records to take with them,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso said.

David Chandler, the state’s child-services director since January, was surprised when asked about this during a May interview. He did not believe the state has a law barring parents and their lawyers from keeping copies of youth court records.

“I don’t know that that’s the state statute,” Chandler said at the time. “You’re saying a lawyer who represents a client in a youth proceeding cannot have a copy of the file?”

But that’s indeed the case, according to every attorney and youth court official the Sun Herald interviewed for this series, including Judges Elise Deano in Hancock County, Sharon Sigalis in Jackson County, Margaret Alfonso in Harrison County, and attorneys Edward Gibson and Mauricio Sierra.

Proponents of this secrecy argue it is necessary to protect the identities of the innocent children involved.

“That is simply a bunch of bull,” Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam said.

Deano agreed and pointed out nearly every other court system and law enforcement agency in the state effectively handles cases involving child victims without the shroud of secrecy enjoyed by DHS and the youth courts. This is done, she said, by simply redacting the child’s name from records or sealing a courtroom when a child is testifying.

“They’ve figured it out in every other court system,” Deano said. “Protecting the children, particularly when something traumatic happens, is important; but there is more than one way to skin a cat.”

‘Punishment haircut’

At their first hearing, Scott Berry had no choice but to act as his own attorney. He stood alone in the courtroom, going toe to toe with three experts — the youth court prosecutor, the guardian ad litem attorney and the DHS worker. Combined, the three had more than 20 years of college education and countless hours of courtroom experience.

“It was nerve-racking,” Scott Berry said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Testifying for the prosecution, the DHS worker put forth an unusual charge against the Berrys. She accused the couple of giving their daughter a “punishment haircut,” because the girl’s hair was shorter than her sisters’, according to an audio recording of a meeting between the caseworker and the couple.

Scott Berry countered by calling his wife to the stand, who offered to submit a photo of their daughter taken right after the haircut. In the photo, she said, her daughter could be seen happily posing and showing off her new hairstyle.

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The day after Scott and Jennifer Berry’s children were taken away by the Hancock County Department of Human Services, they did not show up at school, despite their parents’ pleas that they be there. John Fitzhugh jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Her testimony helped. The haircut matter was dropped, but the court shifted focus to the couple’s oldest child and his knowledge of household appliances. The 8-year-old knew how to use a microwave to warm up food. This concerned the judge, perhaps because of the anonymous tip that the couple was forcing their kids to cook dinner, Jennifer Berry said.

“He said, ‘None of the other stuff really concerns me, but what does concern me is that the 8-year-old knows how to use the microwave,’” she said.

The judge ordered all of the children undergo forensic interviews. He also accepted the DHS worker’s recommendation that Scott Berry’s daughter be removed from her paternal grandmother’s home, where DHS had placed her after the initial investigation. The caseworker already had a new foster parent lined up for the girl — her maternal grandmother, the mother of Scott Berry’s ex-girlfriend.

When a child is taken into custody, youth courts prefer to place the child in the care of a family member, an action referred to as “relative placement.” The relative is then required to obtain a foster-parent license within 90 days.

Though Scott Berry’s mother qualified as a source of relative placement, his ex’s mother had recently obtained a foster license — not long after Scott Berry was awarded custody over his ex, he said.

A follow-up hearing took place about a week later. The children’s forensic interviews had been completed, and the Berrys now had their attorney at their side.

“This is when things really went crazy,” Jennifer Berry said.

A different judge and different guardian ad litem were now on the case. The other judge and other guardian ad litem worked only part-time and had been filling in on the day of the first hearing.

“So these (new) people are not privy to what happened at the last court date,” Jennifer Berry said. “They weren’t there, and I know there can’t be — it’s such a cattle call — there can’t be a lot of communication about each case.”

The same DHS worker who lodged the “punishment haircut” accusation took the stand and recommended all of the Berrys’ children be taken into protective custody, claiming the forensic interviews showed evidence of maltreatment, the couple said.

The judge followed the DHS worker’s recommendation and ordered all of the kids into custody, then rescheduled the hearing for a later date.

“It was a mess,” Jennifer Berry said. “If they would’ve taken 10 seconds to look at it, they would’ve realized it shouldn’t have been like that.”

After the hearing, the couple’s attorney reviewed the forensic findings and found everything to be normal. He even consulted with another attorney who came to the same conclusion, Jennifer Berry said.

Because youth court hearings are sealed to the public, the couple said, it was too easy for the forensic interviews to be misrepresented or misinterpreted during the proceedings.

“When we left the court, obviously we were hysterical,” Jennifer Berry said. “We go home and literally sit there all day, terrified.”

Later that day, there was a knock at the door. It was the same DHS worker and an assistant. They walked into the home, displayed a court order and began hurriedly making preparations to take the children.

“Just like that,” Jennifer said. “That’s how she came to take our kids. Came in, waving a court order.”

What came next was an experience that changed the family forever.

Click here to read part 2 of Fostering Secrets.

Click here to view the entire series.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller

About this series

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.