Families, former social worker claim dysfunctional CPS department is hurting kids

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. (Valley News Live) Internal emails revealed concerns with the leadership of the CPS department ultimately lead 11 people to leave a department of 7 people in just over a year's time.

Now, parents are coming forward claiming their children are the victims of a broken county government department.

“There’s no doubt in mind my son was abused,” said Emily Nelson.

“I know how unjust this place can be. And it’s not ok," said Heidi Sueganyo.

"They should be held accountable to their community and they are not," said Heidee Hill.

Hill, Sueganyo and Nelson have very different stories. But, all their stories have one thing in common: issues with how Grand Forks Child Protective Services handles cases.

“I thought I was being victimized as the victim and I held a grudge about that for a long time during my fight with social services," said Sueganyo.

At first, Sueganyo thought her three children should’ve never been taken away from her.

“It took me about a year, year and half, before I realized that I had nobody to blame," Sueganyo said. She said it started with meth and an abusive relationship. “I called 9-1-1 on my ex. He said that he had hid drugs in my house, didn’t remember where he put them. He was scared my kids were going to find it. They raided my house twice. They didn’t find any drugs. But, due to the severity of the 9-1-1 call my landlord didn’t renew my lease."

With drug charges against Sueganyo and no safe home, CPS took her kids.

She was headed to jail, she said she learned sexual abuse had been taking place with her daughter in the home her children had been placed in. She sounded the alarm to CPS.

“She promised me, she gave me her word that she was going to remove my kids," Sueganyo said. "So I turned myself into Grand Forks County Jail at 7pm, that night and I didn’t find out where my kids were until three and half weeks later.”

She said her kids remained in an abusive home for a week after she alerted CPS. Another issue she had with the CPS department is how she learned her kids were going to be adopted by another family.

“I found out my kids weren’t coming back to me via Facebook," Sueganyo said.

She’s planning to sue CPS for a social workers breaking confidentiality.

“She was at the bar drinking and ran into one of my cousins. And she told him that she didn’t feel it was right what was happening to me. And that they should’ve gave me another chance. When my cousin asked what she was talking about, she told him that they took my kids, that my [parental] rights were terminated," Sueganyo said.

“It’s funny because, with one person they might play the confidentiality rule, the other they might not," said Hill. "I think it just depends on the person and what they think they can get away with.”

Hill actually called CPS herself.

“It was really hard. I knew it was the right thing to do. I mean, I felt like I was betraying my daughter, but at the same point, my grand kids were more important," Hill said.

Hill said her daughter’s kids were in an unsafe home and she continually tried to get CPS to intervene on behalf of her grand kids.

“Looking back, I almost wish I hadn’t done that, because we wouldn’t be in the positions that we’re in," Hill said.

She says there was red flags from the start.

“They kept opening cases and then not following through or not being able to connect to my daughter. And then just closing them saying no services required," Hill said.

Determined to do what was best for her grand kids she did went over the county’s head.

“It took me writing a letter to the department of human services director in Bismarck," Hill said. "And it was not even a few day later that I got a phone call from Grand Forks County stating that they needed information because they were investigating abuse."

Hill said her grand kids were placed her custody temporarily. But, like Sueganyo, Hill said her grandson ended up placed in abusive home.

“He showed us, him being kicked, him being choked. We would share our concerns. I did a 960 report and sent it to the CPS supervisor and nobody ever contacted me. And I did like three of them," Hill said.

A 960 is the report that gets filled out when there’s suspected child abuse. The reason Hill knows how the system works, is because she said she’s a social worker that has done this type of work before.

"A three and half year old shouldn’t have inner thigh marks, bruises. I mean, I took pictures of this and we recorded what he said on why he got them. He said, it was because he pooped in his pants. That’s why he has Encopresis, because every time he would have an accident he would be abused," Hill said.

She said after months of fighting for her grandson she and her husband were finally granted temporary custody. But, now she says CPS is harassing her.

“They’re jerking me around every chance they get," Hill said.

She said CPS has demanded numerous drug tests from her which are completely warrantless and she suspects the department is abusing their power because she went over the county to begin with.

Today, for example, she had to drive down to Fargo for a hair follicle drug test.

“I’m not a criminal, I don’t have a CPS case. I had to drive from Grand Forks, forget everything that I was doing today, in order to come here to do this test, to prove, which I don’t know why I need to prove, but to prove that I’m not this person they think I am. I think what bothers me the most is that I’m a social worker and my integrity is at stake here,' Hill said.

“And I feel his voice was taken and anybody can do whatever they want to him," Nelson said.

Nelson said there was nothing done after she filed a report with CPS after her son was abused.

“My son gave him a very detailed account of what happened. He knew where he was in the room, the color of the chair, what was said. He acted out what happened," Nelson said.

She said her son was hit after she dropped him off for child care. She later learned after the investigation ran its course nothing was going to be done.

“I was shocked, I wasn’t sure what to think at first, I just wanted to get some more detail on what happened," Nelson said.

She says the investigation concluded that the bruise on her sons face didn’t look like it came from someone hitting him. That was enough for the county to dismiss her claims.

“I thought Child Protective Services existed so that children had a voice," Nelson said.

“The department didn’t function like a department should function,"
said one of the 11 social workers that left the department of 7 in just over a year’s time.

We're concealing this whistleblower’s identity for their own protection.

"There are some cases where there are kids that go unnoticed or aren't receiving services when they should be receiving services," the former CPS social worker said.

Our anonymous whistleblower admits, it's hard to know if these cases should have gone differently.

"Without knowing the other side of the story it's hard to say. You know, you can only hear one side of the story. Whether that's the mom's or the child's or both of them. You don't know what the other side is, or what was presented to the team. So, it's hard to know," said our whistleblower.

State law is supposed to make the findings in CPS reports confidential.

"I have first-hand experience of kids that, you know, there were serious concerns for their safety. And something happened within the department that there was no follow through months down the road and no one knows. I mean, hopefully, they're ok. But, there's no eyes on them to make sure of that," said the whistleblower.

Our whistleblower said the problem in the department starts at the top with management. “Lack of organization, lack of follow through. I think over time that has an effect on the whole team. I think that 11 people that have left, should be enough of a red flag that there’s something going on.”

--Do you think the high amount of turnover and the inexperienced workers that are handling caseloads right now are effecting the services kids are getting, or not getting?

“I believe it could affect it definitely. There’s a lot at risk here when the children’s safety is involved.”

“Absolutely, my son fell through the cracks because of inexperienced workers," Nelson said.

“There’s children that are going to be hurt because of that," Sueganyo said.

“Clearly, they need to go through more training and really learn what it is to be a child welfare worker," Hill said.

Grand Forks County Social Services Scot Hoeper said the county CPS process has direct oversight by state and regional offices and they are meeting their standards.
Hoeper also said that his staff is adequately trained, supervised and they're not breaking any laws or policies.