HAMPTON, Va. — A Hampton mother is still fighting to see her children after they were taken away by Child Protective Services in December of 2021.
“I haven’t physically seen my children since January 13, 2022,” said the mother, Brittany Whitworth.
Whitworth emotionally discussed how her two children, ages nine and 22 months, were removed from her care after the Hampton Social Services Department opened an investigation into allegations of abuse and neglect, along with allegations of drug use in the home by her fiancé. The report states there were concerns about a firearm and a protective order was put in place against her fiancé.
She said she was struggling mentally at the time, and now says she lied to police about allegations of domestic violence against the fiancé. She said since then, she has seen therapists and received treatment for issues she was having. She said she regrets the decision to lie to the police and knows it was wrong.
“I have to live with that every day, and it really bothers me because I feel like I was in a position where I really needed help,” said Whitworth.
According to Whitworth, anonymous tips made to CPS about her sparked the investigation.
Following the investigation, she said her children were placed in what’s called alternative living arrangements. This keeps kids out of the foster care system which usually involves placing them with someone they know like a relative. Whitworth said the day this all happened she didn’t understand the documents that she was signing.
“We were told that our choices were that we could sign the paperwork and let the children go with them (a social worker), so we [could keep] custody and [have] it stay out of court, or if we didn’t sign the papers, they were taking the kids that day,” said Whitworth.
She said she was confused, but knew she wanted to keep them out of foster care.
Whitworth provided us with a copy of the report done on her case by the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, an agency created to investigate complaints involving children in the system in Virginia. The report outlines certain issues with how her case was handled.
The report states that at first, the children were put into respite care, which provides parents with short-term childcare services.
According to the report, “Ms. Whitworth’s screens were positive for marijuana. Based on the positive drug screens, the children’s young ages, and concerns about Ms. Whitworth’s ability to provide adequate protection, the agency decided to file for removal and request a temporary custody transfer to a relative of the children on January 6, 2022.”
Whitworth said she has an extremely strained relationship with this person.
The report further states that on February 28, 2022, the court held a dispositional hearing where custody of the children was permanently transferred to the relative and the case was closed.
The report also says, “HCDSS ceased providing any further services or support to Ms. Whitworth.”
Whitworth had filed a complaint with Office of the Children’s Ombudsman January 22, 2022.
The office’s director, Eric Reynolds, said he couldn’t speak about this case specifically. However, he did explain how his agency works and what is done with the complaints they receive: He said there are benefits to alternative living arrangements, like the children being able to stay with someone they know, but he said there are downfalls as well. He also said when kids are put into foster care, there is a lot more support and structure associated with that decision and a clear path for what the parents need to do if they want to get the kids back.
Reynolds further stated that the rules are not as clear with alternative living arrangements. He said there are about 5,000 kids in the foster care system in the state of Virginia, but it’s unknown how many kids are in alternative living arrangements.
“The parents are making these decisions without having any kind of legal advice given to them about what it means. What are the consequences?” said Reynolds. “It is also unclear how long the arrangements will last and there is no guarantee of services… So, we need to do it better.”
He said in addition to parents voicing concerns, his office has also received complaints from caregivers who thought their arrangements were only supposed to be temporary in certain cases.
He stated that some of the cases investigated by his agency were not handled well.
“Some of these cases were going on for years and there’s no due process for the parents,” said Reynolds.
Whitworth said she does not feel like she has received due process.
“If it wasn’t for Instacart, I probably wouldn’t be alive. I couldn’t go to the grocery stores. I couldn’t see other people with their kids. I couldn’t see anything that reminded me of them,” said Whitworth.
Here is the full conclusion of the report done by the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman regarding Whitworth’s case:
Conclusion: We commend the agency’s decision to place the children with a relative whom the children knew, but Ms. Whitworth was given no clear plan for the children to return home and was offered no services to assist her in addressing the safety issues that led to the children’s removal.
State guidance states that “[c]hildren do best when they can grow up in their own families and remain safely connected to their mother, father, siblings, and extended family members throughout their life.” When the agency determines that it is unsafe for the children to remain home, the agency should be supporting the family so that the children can maintain a positive relationship with the parents and offer services to assist the parents in addressing the safety needs of the home. The agency should reassess its policy to not allow visits to occur while children are placed with the agency’s respite families. Regular contact can help maintain the parent-child relationship during periods of separation. Also, closing the case when custody is legally transferred to a relative after such a short period of time and refusing to work with the parent to regain custody of their children does not promote the parent-child connection and may not result in true permanence.
The concerns expressed by Ms. Whitworth mirror those we have heard from parents across the state when local departments of social services engage in diversionary practices to prevent children from entering formal foster care. When an agency intervenes and determines that children cannot safely remain in their home, they owe it to families to provide services and support that can lead to their reunification.
While we appreciate that HCDSS engaged the court in this process, we were disappointed to see that the Prevention and In-Home Services to Families guidance was not followed. This guidance was created for situations like this, where a child cannot be safely maintained in their home but they are not entering foster care. The goal is to protect the children while maintaining family bonds and giving parents support and tools so they may work towards reunification.
In this case, Ms. Whitworth was given little support and only a few months to remedy the issues that led to the children’s removal from her home. Her children are now placed with a relative with whom she has a very strained relationship that makes visitation a challenge. Moreover, she faces difficult legal barriers if she were to seek custody through the court system as she has lost her parental presumption.
The child welfare system involves a delicate balance between ensuring child safety and preserving families. Laws and VDSS guidance are in place to protect both of these interests to ensure that a child’s right to safety and permanence is maintained while respecting parental rights and due process. Agency practices that bypass these processes established for government intervention in a family can upset this balance.
Whitworth said the report from the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman was not used in her court proceedings.
The city of Hampton issued the following response regarding the case:
“While the City is legally unable to respond to questions about a specific case, the Hampton Department of Human Services endeavors to make all reasonable efforts to keep children with their parents whenever it is safely possible and in the best interest of the child/children. When that cannot be achieved, relative placement options may be deemed more suitable. Or, as a last resort, a child may be brought into HDHS custody. Parents have the right to appeal all decisions regarding the placement of a child outside of parental custody through the appropriate judicial processes.”
Reynolds said there are 120 individual local departments of social services throughout the state of Virginia that operate differently.
“There’s not much authority at the state level over those local agencies and because there’s that disconnect, there’s that lack of authority to enforce the regulations or enforce the state policies. JLARC had identified that as an issue, which leads to inconsistent practice throughout the state,” said Reynolds.
He said many of the local social services agencies also face workforce-related issues, including retaining people.
“Getting good quality workers in the agencies, finding good people for them to hire and to retain [them is an issue]. We need good attorneys out there and we need judges that are trained on these cases, because these cases are like no other,” said Reynolds.
He said his agency doesn’t have the authority to enforce laws. They’re only responsible for alerting the right people of problems.
“All we do is shine a light. I tell people that we’ve just got a flashlight, or sometimes it’s a big spotlight, to put on the issues, but that’s all we have,” said Reynolds.
Whitworth has continued her fight to see her children. She’s trying to to speak to lawmakers, community leaders or anyone who will listen about her case.
“I missed [my daughter’s] second birthday. I missed her second Christmas. I’ve now missed her third birthday,” said Whitworth. “I got a shed full of their stuff, still all of their things. They took my children a week before Christmas. It’s been immobilizing.”
She says regrets some of her decisions, including getting arrested in January 2022 for forgery and conspiracy to commit auto theft. She said at the time, she was not aware that she was breaking the law and took a plea deal.
She said she wished she understood her rights with the custody issues.
“I want my kids home and I want the policies or whatever is allowing this to even happen to stop,” said Whitworth.