Last year, Amanda Wallace started a one-woman crusade against officials with Durham County’s Department of Social Services (DSS).
One would think that Wallace, given her rhetoric and tone, was waging battle against the Trump administration and its draconian zero-tolerance policy that separated children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But no, Wallace, a former investigator with child protective services (CPS) who worked at offices across the state, including in Lincoln, Buncombe, and Wake Counties, is protesting the policies of CPS, her employer for years.
Wallace worked as a CPS investigator in North Carolina for 10 years before starting Operation Stop CPS, a statewide grassroots campaign that works to hold child protective service agencies accountable while advocating on behalf of parents with children in the foster care system.
On February 14, 2018, Wallace started working as a CPS investigator in Wake County. In May 2021, she founded Operation Stop CPS after witnessing the unjustified separation of children from their parents. Shortly after, Wake officials placed her on administrative leave and she was terminated later that month.
Wallace says about 50 percent of referrals to CPS come from the public school system, where teachers report suspected abuse and neglect upon learning a child didn’t eat the night before or was spanked.
While well intentioned, Wallace says the reports create “a very strong and vibrant pipeline from school to CPS.”
Wallace says CPS investigators normally expect referrals to “crank up” in August when children return to school and are asked the seemingly innocuous question, How was your summer?
CPS investigators also field referrals from law enforcement officers, who may visit a home where parents are arguing while a child is present, and from hospitals, where physicians report evidence of abuse and neglect.
Wallace points to the case of Kelli Smith, a young mother of three children. Two were taken out of her home.
Last week, Smith stood behind a podium during a regularly scheduled meeting of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. She fought hard to not cry, but tears spilled out of her eyes.
CPS in 2019 removed Smith’s daughter from her home. They took her son in 2020, soon after he was born. Wallace called CPS’s decision to remove Smith’s son “a common practice” if the parent has a history with DSS.
“I’ve done everything that CPS has asked me to do,” Smith said. “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.
Wallace says CPS “is trying to adopt [Smith’s] other children out.”
“They haven’t given her a reason,” Wallace replies when the INDY asks her why.
Wallace has taken her crusade all over the state. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, she’s joined in the downtown Durham district by a handful of women who have lost custody of their children to CPS. The women stand in the road along the sidewalk curb of the 400 block of West Main Street in front of the county health department.
The angry, frustrated, and desperate mothers fire off a series of bothersome allegations of profound mistreatment of their children and themselves at the hands of workers with the county’s CPS department.
The distraught mothers, with the support of Wallace and other family advocates, say that far from protecting their children, CPS workers place them in foster homes, where they are often subjected to abuse, neglect, and trauma.
“Our children are kept in a system for longer than they should,” KeKe Woods, who holds a master’s degree in social work, told Durham County commissioners during their regularly scheduled meeting on August 8.
Woods was at the meeting to speak on behalf of nearly a half dozen women whose children are in foster care, and to oppose $33,000 in state funds available to former and current foster care children as a back-to-school allowance for clothing and uniforms. A portion of the funds were also available for young adults who have aged out of foster care and now need help to become self-sufficient.
“They don’t need transitional housing and all of these things in foster care,” Woods told the commissioners. “They need to be reunited with their families and given the necessary resources so they can mend and be made whole.”
Wendy Jacobs, the county commissioners’ co-chair, declined comment last week and referred all questions to the county attorney’s office.
Acting county attorney Willie Darby told the INDY that he was “turning over” the INDY’s question about the allegations to Bettyna Abney, the county’s chief attorney who is “handling this matter.” But Darby added that as a general rule, the county doesn’t comment on court matters.
Last week, Wallace, a cheery woman who wore her hair in braided extensions, was outfitted in a red T-shirt, shorts, and red sneakers. She held aloft an oversized sign that accused Durham County CPS of kidnapping a 23-year-old woman’s two children.
Wallace gripped a red-and-white megaphone in one hand and handed out leaflets with the other, before she paused to stridently mouth into the megaphone the point of her protest: the kidnapping and genocide of impoverished Black and brown children from their homes by workers with the county’s CPS.
“CPS, you can’t hide,” Wallace chanted. “We charge you with genocide.”
On Thursday, Wallace was joined by Jessica Platt, the mother of a 16-year-old daughter who disappeared from the residential treatment center where she was living in Raleigh.
Thursday was her daughter’s birthday, and Platt hadn’t heard from her in months after she went missing from the center, where she was assigned to reside by Durham County’s DSS.
Platt says the teen was raped and abused in foster care.
Platt also has two sons who live with her. Her daughter had been in foster care for a decade before she disappeared in February.
Nearly a half dozen women last week made public what they have endured to have their children returned to them and taken out of the custody of Durham’s CPS.
Last week, Alexis Wynn, the 23-year-old mother of the two toddler children in foster care whose photos were displayed on Wallace’s sign, told members of the Durham County Board of Commissioners that her children are in a household where a convicted felon who is also a registered sex offender is present.
“CPS stands for ‘child protective services,’ but it’s not protecting children,” Wynn told the commissioners. Wynn said her two sons in foster care are “being abused physically and sexually.”
“I have proof of the bruises on my children: black eyes, busted lips, and where my children are placed with a child abuser and convicted felon sex offender,” Wynn added as a sob formed in her throat. “My children cry out to me every visit I have with them, telling me devastating stories of what they are going through, with them being only three and four years old.”
Wynn told the commissioners that she has reported what has been going on to her children’s caseworker with CPS, but the official “chooses not to protect my children and do her job.”
Before leaving the podium, Wynn looked at DSS director Ben Rose, told him to look in her eyes, and asked, “How can you sleep at night, knowing that my children are being abused?”
Last week, DSS took action.
Rose signed a no-contact order that barred Wallace, the Operation Stop CPS founder, from protesting in front of his home, at the county courthouse, and at the DSS offices.
The “no-contact order pursuant to the Workplace Violence Prevention Act” accuses Wallace and others of “aggressively shouting defamatory statements” including, “kidnapping,” and “you are stealing Black children,” along with “you are committing genocide of Black children” in front of his home, where he divides his work schedule with time at his DSS office.
Indeed, the permanent no-contact order states that Wallace poses a threat to all of CPS when she said “she will take action, by any means necessary,” and notes as evidence an unrelated photo of Wallace at a gun range “and other gun images.”
Wallace in May was served a similar no-contact order in New Hanover County. Last week, an influential nonprofit, Movement for Family Power (MFP), filed a letter in New Hanover District Court urging judicial officials “to either dismiss this case entirely or give Ms. Wallace adequate time for a defense.”
The MFP letter of support for Wallace described her as “a tireless advocate for Black families that are being separated by a deeply flawed system.”
“Her peaceful protests, and first hand perspectives are necessary to ensure accountability to a system that is riddled with racial and economic injustice. We urge the court to allow free expression against racial discrimination and dismiss the case against Ms. Wallace or grant her a continuance to get more support,” wrote MFP directors and cofounders Erin Miles Cloud, Lisa Sangoi, and Ali Diaz-Tello.
MFP also listed the support of educators, scholars, family advocates, activists, and attorneys, including Jamie Marsicano, who is president of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
The MFP letter, in urging dismissal of the case against Wallace notes that she—a Black woman, social worker, and former CPS caseworker—has supported Black families and led peaceful protests against racial discrimination in the child welfare system.
The letter also expresses “deep concerns” about the precedent the New Hanover court would be setting by holding Wallace in contempt of the no-contact order, whose enforcement “would unlawfully suppress” her First Amendment right to free speech.
The letter also points to a series of race-based disparities that take place in the foster care system, including a 2021 report by the Children’s Bureau that reported African American children are overrepresented in the foster system. In 2019, the letter notes, African American children made up about 14 percent of the total child population but 22 percent of the total foster system population.
“Moreover, systematic discrimination plagued African-American children at every decision point,” MFP officials state in the letter. “Black children were more likely to be removed from their families, and relative to other children Black kids are more likely to spend more time in foster care. These national trends extend to North Carolina.”
Wallace is elated by MFP’s letter of support to New Hanover County judicial officials.
“One will be drafted for Durham County as well,” Wallace told the INDY.
Wallace is scheduled to appear in Durham district court on Wednesday for the no-contact order. Meanwhile she says there was increased security at the county commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting this week.
They were reportedly checking people for weapons before allowing them into the meeting.
“They were wanding people because they said the people who came with us showed up with guns,” Wallace told the INDY this week. “They are really trying to paint this narrative.”
Despite the ongoing legal obstacles and challenges the foster care system poses, Wallace says she’s “good.”
“I’m ready to speak my mind,” she told the INDY last week while standing in front of the county health building. “I’m ready to get into good trouble.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Operation Stop CPS is a nonprofit organization. Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.