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Who Stole the Stratton Kids?

A conspiracy extraordinaire

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There's a reason I call my voicemail at Creative Loafing the "fruit and nut line." At one point or another, every fruit and nut in town has recorded a rant or rave on it. I have a very simple formula for deciding who to take seriously: if more than two governmental agencies are involved in the supposed "conspiracy" they want me to investigate, I generally hit delete.If there's one thing reporting has taught me, it's that the vast majority of government bureaucrats are not organizationally capable of the sort of effort required to pull off a multi-agency conspiracy to keep someone down. Like other faddish conspiracy theories, Jack and Kathy Stratton's battle for custody of nine of their children has long since earned fruit and nut status with me.

It was possible to believe that a conspiracy could have been in play when only the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services and Judge Elizabeth Miller were involved in removing the Stratton kids from their parents' home on charges that the deeply religious couple, who home-schooled their children, had neglected to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care for them.

But as a growing number of eyeballs from various government agencies have perused the full record in the case -- which includes internal DSS records not available to the public -- and failed to find fault with the agency, it's becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the Strattons were the victims of a treacherous plot by DSS to steal children from perfectly good homes and trade them for federal adoption money.

At this point, in order to cling to the belief that Jack and Kathy Stratton bore no fault whatsoever for the fact that their parental rights to their children were terminated last week, you've got to believe that DSS, two judges, the NC Attorney General's office, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, all of the Mecklenburg County commissioners but one, and the anonymous person who originally filed a complaint against the Strattons were all part of a conspiracy.

With the exception of the person who originally turned in the Strattons, all the folks listed above have either declined to investigate or sided with DSS after having full access to all the details of the case. District Judge Margaret Sharpe, who initially showed signs of hammering out a compromise between the Strattons and DSS, eventually decided to terminate the couple's parental rights last week. Even conservative County Commissioner Bill James, who has spent his political career terrorizing county bureaucrats, appears unwilling to take on the system over this case. The best he could muster for the Charlotte Observer was that he finds "enough blame on the side of DSS and the Strattons to go around."

The main problem here is that the public has no access to the internal DSS documents, so we'll never know who's lying and who's telling the truth. DSS employees are barred by law from talking about the case, which has prevented them from responding to the charges Jack Stratton has leveled against the agency in the media, despite Judge Elizabeth Miller's over-the-top efforts to jail him for talking about the case. (Miller is legendary for haranguing those who have the misfortune of winding up in her courtroom when she's having a bad day. Jack Stratton is but one of many.)

We do know that a doctor noted in a medical report that one of the Stratton children claimed another child sexually abused him in foster care. No charges were filed by police in the case, but DSS doesn't exactly appear to be on a crusade to keep this sort of thing from happening again in foster care, and rightfully deserves criticism for that.

But beyond that, it's appearing more and more that the agency may have gotten a bum rap. Since the beginning, much of the media coverage of this case has been very heavily slanted in the Strattons' favor. Although all the facts were unknown, Jack Stratton was given the benefit of the doubt from day one, a luxury County Commissioner Parks Helms was not afforded. Helms was publicly vilified for maintaining that DSS did nothing wrong after reviewing publicly undisclosed information on the case.

Frankly, if DSS is really yanking children from the homes of impoverished parents who can't fight back in order to build a large war chest of federal adoption incentive money, they're doing a lousy job of it. Of the 4,219 abuse or neglect cases social workers completed in the 2001-02 budget year, they filed 127 petitions asking courts for legal custody of the children involved.

Given the coverage of this case so far, it's easy to forget that DSS workers don't swoop down out of the sky and pluck up children. The department is complaint-driven and can only remove a child from a home by court order, unless the child is in imminent danger, in which case a hearing must be held in seven days. Once the court orders the removal of a child, all decisions are in the hands of a judge, not Parks Helms, DSS, or the county commission.

I'm sure there's blame for something that should be assigned to someone here, but I'll be damned if I can figure out who.

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