Kelli Smith of Durham says she was originally going to spend a holiday on December 22 at home with her toddler children who have been in foster care for a little over three years. She looked forward to opening gifts, making them comfortable, and cooking her babies—now three and two years old—something to eat.
“Child Protective Services [CPS] always puts stumbling blocks in the way,” Smith told the INDY this week. “They put me on the spot, and told me, ‘You can have [the visit] at the DSS building, or you don’t have it at all.”
The DSS decision for her to spend two hours with her children in a room at the agency’s building saddened her.
“It just reminded me of what me and my children are going through,” Smith says. “Christmas is about family and opening gifts. My daughter kept asking me, ‘Mommy, when are we coming home. How long will it take?’”
The court, on December 15, did not consider Smith’s request to have her children at her home on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Instead, Durham County district court judge Doretta Walker upheld the continuance of a no-contact order that made no mention of Smith’s ability or inability to take care of her children.
The no-contact order appeared to penalize Smith for publicly advocating for the legal and physical custody of her children and for joining protests that challenged the policies of the Durham County Department of Social Services (DSS), particularly the agency’s child protective services unit.
Without an attorney, Smith has relied on the support of the controversial group Operation Stop Child Protective Services and its fiery founder, Amanda Wallace, in her more-than-three-year-long quest to bring her two children home.
The INDY first reported on Wallace and her unique brand of advocacy on behalf of mothers who have lost custody of their children to DSS last summer, nearly a year after she started a one-woman crusade that has become an acute pain in the ass for DSS officials. This summer, Durham district court judge James Hill upheld a no-contact order against Wallace and Operation CPS, of which Smith is a member, that barred Wallace and the group from protesting outside of the DSS offices and the county courthouse.
But the issue of CPS, and foster care, with its disproportionate impact on Black families, became part of the national conversation late last year after CBS Sunday Morning aired a segment titled “When the System Fails, Families May Pay the Ultimate Price.”
One featured guest on the program was Dorothy Roberts, a sociologist and University of Pennsylvania professor. Roberts is the author of Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, and her commentary mirrored many of the concerns raised by Wallace and endured by Smith.
Roberts, while emphasizing how poor Black families are disproportionately impacted by the child welfare system, describes terms like “child welfare,” “foster care,” and “protective services” as propaganda. She prefers the term “family policing system.”
“Because that really describes what the system does,” Roberts says in the segment. “To investigate, to accuse, to tear apart. More than half of Black children in America will be subjected to a child welfare investigation before they reach [age] 18.”
The nonprofit Movement for Family Power (MFP), in a letter last month to Judge Walker, stated that Smith and Wallace are contesting a system that disproportionately impacts economically challenged Black families.
Black children “are not primarily involved in the child welfare system because their parents are abusive,” the MFP letter states.
“Far more common than a child who comes into care because they experienced physical abuse are children who come into foster care because the food stamps ran out or because an illness went untreated after parents were kicked off Medicaid or because a single mother trying to stay off welfare could not provide adequate supervision while she worked. Even where harm does exist, the North Carolina system has not been shown to prevent abuse,” the letter continues.
Smith says she was a teen mom and having a difficult relationship with her mother, when, in 2019, DSS took her first child from her. One day while the two argued, Smith says her mom called DSS and claimed she was abusing and neglecting her infant daughter.
“My mom ended up telling DSS the things she said [weren’t] true and she said them because she was upset with me,” Smith says.
Smith says she was later taken into a room at the county courthouse and her court-appointed lawyer asked her to sign papers that dismissed the abuse and neglect allegations.
“I thought I was signing something that said the things I did to my child [weren’t] true, and DSS knows [they weren’t] true,” Smith says. Instead, she later learned that she had signed a document admitting to the allegations.
“I was taken into a room and signed papers without a guardian ad litem present,” Smith says. “My mom was there, but she wasn’t allowed in the room.”
Smith later saw the allegations in a court order that removed her baby from her home.
“These are all lies,” she remembers thinking about the allegations.
In 2021, DSS officials returned to Smith’s home and removed her six-month-old son from the home.
Last month, MFP wrote a second letter to Judge Walker prior to the December 15 court order to silence Smith and Wallace.
“We have deep concerns about the precedent this court would be setting by restraining the actions of Kelli Smith—a Black mother, exercising her First Amendment right by raising awareness for the forced separation of her two children,” MFP members stated.
During the summer, Smith had taken her cause before the Durham County Board of Commissioners during a regularly scheduled meeting. Teary-eyed and nearly overcome with emotion, the young mom could barely speak.
“I’ve done everything that CPS has asked me to do,” Smith told the commissioners. “And my children still haven’t been placed back with me in my home. CPS closed the case on one of my children. They basically said it’s OK for me to be a great mother for one of my children but not the other two.”
On June 7, Smith received a letter from DSS that named all three of her children before informing her that there was no indication of maltreatment of her youngest son.
In August, Wallace told the INDY that she thinks CPS “is trying to adopt [Smith’s] other children out.”
On October 12, Smith filed a motion for review with the Durham County Juvenile Court. She stated that she had “substantially complied” with the conditions the court had “previously ordered” and that it was “in the children’s best interests to return to her legal and physical custody”— at the very least “as a trial placement.”
With the holidays approaching, Smith asked the court if she could have an “overnight visit” with her babies, beginning on Christmas Eve and ending the day after Christmas, according to her motion for review.
A hearing to consider Smith’s motion was set for December 15.
But things went left during the hearing when Glenna Boston, the case’s guardian ad litem attorney, filed an order that asked Judge Walker to continue to include Smith in the temporary restraining order against Wallace and Operation CPS issued by Hill in late August.
Smith’s hope for a “trial placement” of her children at her home was not considered. Instead, Walker signed a temporary restraining order that prohibited her right to publicly speak or protest her case.
“The restraining order,” Boston stated, “will not harm” Smith.
“Judge Walker stated that if you informed anyone of the confidential information that we discussed in the courtroom, your holiday visit would be dismissed,” Smith’s guardian ad litem, Shelley Brown, who Walker appointed to represent Smith at the Decmber 15 hearing, wrote in an email to Smith shortly after the hearing. “Due to the agency and the guardian ad litem office [having] been notified that information from the hearing has been discussed, your holiday visit has been cancelled.”
In her four-page request to continue the no-contact order, Boston stated that Smith had chosen to rely “heavily on the advice” of Wallace and Operation Stop CPS.
Boston also stated that she and her family were threatened and harassed due to her representation of Smith’s children in the case. She also claimed that on October 18, Smith and Operation Stop CPS had “phoned her repeatedly without ceasing” and had camped outside of her office and did not leave until they were “forcibly removed by a sheriff’s deputy.”
Boston added that she was targeted with emails and texts “with negative and racial undertones as implicit threats” toward her, and that Smith in concert with Operation Stop CPS had posted on social media personal information about her “with the goal of harassing” her.
Boston also criticized Smith and Operation Stop CPS for posting videos and photos of the young mother’s children on social media sites, in which Smith is talking to them about going home and “sharing personal moments of the minor children.”
Boston, in addition to stating that she is afraid for the lives and livelihoods of herself and her family, noted that “a child’s right to privacy outweighs” Smith’s rights as their mother “and her agents to free speech in this matter.”
But MFP officials accused Boston of using Smith’s case “as a venue to seek a protective order for her own personal interest and the interest of her family.”
“The basis of Ms. Boston’s motion relies heavily on communication that Ms. Boston interprets as offensive,” the MFP letter states. “Speech cannot be restricted merely because a speaker’s message is offensive to the government or to the recipient.”
Prior to the December 15 no-contact order, Smith, who has an eight-month-old son at home, was allowed a two-hour Thanksgiving visit supervised by the children’s grandmother on the fifth floor of the DSS offices. The visit took place several days before Thanksgiving, “before they closed for the holidays,” Wallace says.
After Walker signed a continuance of the no-contact order, Wallace says DSS officials at first canceled altogether a Christmas visit with Smith and her children. But on December 20, Brown sent Smith an email informing her that she could have a supervised, two-hour holiday visit with her children on the second floor of the DSS building the next day. That’s a far cry from spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in their mother’s home.
“I want you to focus on the bigger picture…seeing your kids, giving them Christmas and creating yet another positive memory of them with you,” Brown wrote.
DSS officials could not be reached for comment about Smith’s case.
Meanwhile, MFP describes Smith as trying to keep her head up and her faith strong. She works each day with People Ready, an agency that supplies temporary workers for local businesses. She attends therapy sessions, is considered a leader in her Hoover Road community, and looks after her eight-month-old son.
“Ms. Smith is a resilient mother who has overcome every obstacle this system has placed in her way,” the MFP letter concludes. It urges the court “to allow free expression against racial discrimination.”
Smith says she did not become aware of the confidentiality violation until the December 15 hearing.
“They want me to feel ashamed, but I’m not ashamed,” she adds. “They took advantage of me because I was a teen.”
Smith says she wants to let other young mothers know the perils of what could happen to their children if they become ensnared in the child welfare system, and she says the best outcome is for her children to come home.
“I want my children to come home and live with me and my other son,” she says. “My daughter asks why do I take my youngest son after a visit, but leave them? I tell her I can’t do anything about that right now. I want them to come home, and heal from this trauma we have experienced in our lives.”
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