This story is courtesy of our sister station WNCN in Raleigh, NC.
HARNETT COUNTY, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s a bizarre case that ended up leaving two kids in the custody of complete strangers. Names have been left out to protect the privacy of the children involved.
A Harnett county couple was searching Facebook when they came across a plea for help. A homeless woman was looking for a tarp to sleep on, so the couple packed up some supplies and offered to help.
They met the woman at a home in Wake County where her ex-husband lives with a roommate. The couple said when they arrived, they saw a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old playing in the yard, trying to make sense of it all.
“When we got out there to help and saw the situation we just wanted to do whatever we could for those kids,” the couple said.
The couple felt so bad they offered to drive the kids up the road to get ice cream. The mother agreed.
“In that car ride I heard so many things I never thought I’d hear a child tell me,” the couple said.
They say they were then afraid to take the kids back to the house, so asked the mother if the kids could stay with them for a night.
“We were very afraid, so when we got back we just asked if we could give them a night with a warm bed,” explained the couple. Again, the mother agreed.
The couple took the kids home and called DSS.
“We called them to let them know the situation, we told them we didn’t want to have to bring them back [to their parents] but we’d have to if they wouldn’t help. They told us help is on the way, just to be patient,” they said.
Patient ended up being an understatement.
“We heard from them the next day, they came, they saw our house, inspected it, saw it was fit for the children to have been there,” they explained.
But the couple said Harnett County DSS then told them they didn’t have a place for the children to go, and asked them to watch the kids over the weekend.
“They told us Monday would be the end of it all and it would never go passed Monday,” the couple said. “When Monday came we got no phone call.”
WNCN Investigates talked to the ex-husband, the father of one of the kids.
“Why give these kids to somebody you just met online?” asked reporter Jonathan Rodriguez. “I realized in retrospect that was definitely our biggest mistake,” the father said.
The children were from Wake County so the couple figured they’d try getting help there. Instead they say they ended up in the middle of a jurisdiction battle.
“We were on the phone all night. [DSS] said that they couldn’t take care of it because it wasn’t their responsibility and no matter who we spoke to we got the same answer,” the couple said.
After nearly a week with the kids, the couple was out of options and called DSS to let them know they would be dropping the kids back off with their parents. They didn’t expect to hear this:
“We were told that if we brought them back now that DSS was involved, we’d be charged with child abandonment,” the couple said.
Their good intentions now left them stuck.
“How can you leave two children with a couple that legally has no custody?” the couple asked.
If DSS doesn’t have custody of a child, the kids can stay with someone “kin” to the parents. DSS policy says “kinship” is a self-defined term between people with legal or close family ties, but the couple just met the mother on Facebook.
“After almost a week, Harnett County was finally willing to come get them and they had a space for them and everything but Wake County would not approve it,” the couple said.
That’s when a neighbor decided to call WNCN Investigates.
“The only thing that got them moving was telling them that we had been in contact with the news and all of sudden they felt like taking custody of the children but they still didn’t feel like coming and getting them so we had to drive to Wake County and drop them off for them,” the couple said.
Privacy laws prevent both Harnett and Wake County DSS from commenting on individual cases, but they also refused to do an on-camera interview to simply discuss policies. Wake County referred WNCN to its attorney, who also denied an on-camera interview. They did answer general questions and provide the following statements.
Harnett County: “In Harnett County, we take any concerns regarding the safety of our children very seriously. Making sure all our children have a safe place to live is of the utmost importance to our Social Services employees.”
Wake County: “Wake County Child Protective Services takes all reports of child maltreatment seriously to ensure the safety of children. However, under long-established Child Protective Services laws, we cannot release information about specific cases.”
WNCN Investigates asked the couple why they took the kids in the first place. “When you see two children desperately in need of somebody to provide just love for them, I see it as an obligation,” they said. “How could we have possibly have turned away knowing the situation and gone to sleep that night?”
The father of one of the children tells WNCN Investigates that DSS called it a case of neglect, and said he is working to try and get his kids back.
“I’m going crazy without having them with me. Every day I sit in my room and see their clothes and toys and it’s making everything spin right now,” the father said.
As for the couple: “If anything else, at least we gave them hope that there are [good] people still in the world,” they said. “That way they don’t forget what they deserve, that way they don’t get used to anything less. They have a standard now.”