Leon and Chrissy Smith thought they had finally completed their two-year-long journey to parenthood when they adopted a 22-month-old boy in late August.
Yet five weeks after the toddler was brought to the Smiths and stole their hearts, the Gaston County Department of Social Services took him back. He was returned to a Gaston County couple that had fostered him from birth, after a public and political outcry here about why the child had been removed from that home in the first place.
Since the Smiths had registered directly with an adoption agency, instead of first serving as foster parents, they had no reason to believe the placement wouldn’t be final. But because the adoption process technically takes 90 days to become official, they had no legal recourse.
Still bitter about their treatment by Gaston County DSS, however, the couple is not letting the matter rest. They are talking with an attorney about filing a civil lawsuit against that agency, as well as a custody suit to get the child back.
“I want people to know there’s another side to this story,” said Chrissy Smith. “Our world got turned upside down for no reason.
“I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t get involved in this to be a baby sitter for five weeks.”
The decision to return the child to original foster parents David and Michelle Buchanan, who are now proceeding with plans to adopt him, was made by Gaston County DSS Director Keith Moon. It is believed to be the first time a director here has made such a unilateral move, overruling the Adoptions Committee that typically decides where to place children in foster care.
Moon has declined to comment specifically about the case, citing Social Services confidentiality laws. But he said he is sorry for the angst that recent events have caused.
“Your heart always goes out to the people in these situations,” he said.
A child of their own
Leon Smith has a 7-year-old son from a previous relationship. He and Chrissy hoped to have a child together once they were married, but after she suffered seven miscarriages in the last few years, they realized adoption was their only option.
Because they are a biracial couple, they sought to adopt a black or biracial child of any age. The Smiths went through the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina because they wanted to adopt immediately, rather than foster.
“I was not going to put a child in my home to give us more heartache,” Chrissy Smith said.
In August, after months of reviewing profiles of children, the Smiths were told about a biracial, 22-month-old toddler who was being moved out of a foster home in Gaston County, where he had been raised from birth by the Buchanans. They said they would be interested in adopting, as long as there were no unresolved issues with the boy.
After an extended meeting Aug. 29 with the DSS Adoptions Committee, the Smiths were approved to become the child’s adoptive parents. Two days later, two social workers arrived with the toddler.
“We were so excited,” Chrissy Smith said.
By most accounts, the Buchanans are highly regarded foster parents. They said they grew to love the newborn boy they began fostering in November 2010 and were on what they believed was a path to adoption. But the 22-month-old was suddenly taken from them and placed in the Smiths’ home Aug. 31, and the Buchanans were offered no explanation why.
The Adoptions Committee that made that decision was largely made up of DSS officials. Despite the child’s relocation, DSS had only recently renewed the Buchanans’ foster care license.
After the Buchanans’ story was documented in a Gazette article Sept. 27, they pleaded for help during a Gaston County commissioners meeting. A number of their friends and fellow foster parents also spoke on their behalf and testified to their character.
Behind the scenes, county commissioners and state legislators began to question the decision to take the child from the couple.
The public pressure prompted Moon to call in an outside attorney to review the Adoptions Committee’s decision. That attorney cited legal concerns about the committee’s rationale and suggested it needed to reconvene, according to a Gazette source with knowledge of the discussions.
Revisiting the decision
It was soon revealed that the child had been removed from the Buchanans’ home for permanent placement elsewhere in part because they are white, and the child is biracial, according to the Gazette’s source. At least one social worker involved in the case had also accused the Buchanans of Munchausen by proxy syndrome. The term pertains to a form of child abuse that involves the exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caretaker.
But two physicians who had cared for the toddler stood up for the Buchanans. Both wrote letters testifying that the child’s medical issues were valid, and in no way due to the Buchanans’ actions.
The idea that social workers could make such claims in an Adoptions Committee meeting, without medical justification, prompted concerns about the procedures in place.
More than one DSS employee who was involved in the Buchanans’ case was also found to have made threatening comments on Facebook as the story gained publicity. Those included postings that the Buchanans should “watch what you do, or things will come back to bite you,” according to several Gazette sources.
Moon has since reassigned at least one social worker with ties to that case to a new job.
In early October, Moon convened the Adoptions Committee again to review the case of the foster child in question. Several committee members still refuted the idea of returning the child to the Buchanans, but Moon overrode them.
“After consultation with legal counsel, I have decided to overrule the decision of the Adoptions Committee,” Moon wrote in an Oct. 5 email to county leaders. “The child will be placed in foster care with the Buchanan family and we will move quickly to review our adoption process and reconstitute the committee.”
Since then, Moon has changed the committee’s makeup, condensed its size and given the DSS attorney more oversight in guiding each meeting. In the future, he said foster parents will be allowed to offer their perspective to the Adoptions Committee before placement decisions are made.
After the child was returned to the Buchanans, they were asked to no longer speak with the media about their case.
When the child was taken back from the Smiths on Oct. 5, they were also advised not to speak about the case. But after a meeting with Moon and other DSS officials in late October, they decided to go public with their complaints.
Chrissy Smith said she bonded with her adopted son from their first day together.
She said she had been told – and read in his medical records – that he had numerous issues, such as trouble talking, urinating, swallowing and eating certain foods. But she said she noticed no such problems in the five weeks she had him. He also became more expressive and talkative in that time, she said.
The Smiths had been reading Gazette articles about the uproar regarding their adopted child for a week, when they received a phone call on Oct. 5. They were told that new evidence had been presented in the case, and that DSS would be coming to take the child back that day.
“I fell completely to the floor,” said Chrissy Smith. “I was crying.”
Late last month, the Smiths were finally allowed to meet with Moon and other DSS officials. They were immediately asked to sign papers agreeing to never again discuss the case publicly, but they declined.
The Smiths secretly recorded the meeting, and they pressed Moon about his decision to remove the child from their home, despite never having met them before.
“I told him, ‘You’re not a social worker and you had never even met this child before making this decision, but you’ve ripped my life apart,” Chrissy Smith said.
Custody battle possible
Cheryl Harris, the DSS program administrator for Family and Children’s Services, was also in attendance during the meeting with the Smiths. Like Moon, she declined to speak about the case specifically. But she alluded to the events that have transpired.
“I can tell you I did not get into this role to cause people pain,” said Harris. “I don’t think anyone in this agency would intentionally make decisions that would cause someone pain. It’s very, very difficult, I think, for everybody.”
But the apologies have given the Smiths no comfort. They believe Moon made his decision because of pressure from county commissioners, who were under fire from the public, and that Moon feared he would lose his job if he didn’t act.
“I don’t think DSS wants this to go to court,” said Chrissy Smith. “But honestly, I would like it to all come to light, because this man played with my life.”
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