By Peter White
SOUTH FULTON, TN — One of the town’s six police officers was waiting at a stop sign in a squad car as Joe Nery and his two kids walked by. The officer made Nery wait for an hour and a half in a church parking lot before two women who drove a black pickup truck with big wheels and tinted windows showed up. They wore T-shirts and jeans.
“One was wearing flip-flops and the other was wearing tennis shoes. It would be very difficult to believe that someone who works for the state to handle an important matter like this to be dressed so totally inappropriately. They looked just raggedy, you know? I had to take their word because I had three officers in front me ready to tackle me if I put up a fuss or if I wanted to fight for my kids,” Nery said.
He said he does not know their names because the two women did not show any identification before taking the kids. Nery alleged one of the women flashed a photo on her cell phone of what she said was a court order but she pulled it back before Nery could read it.
Then, he said the women trundled the two kids into their big black truck and left Dad alone in the parking lot. He said they had no booster seat and didn’t give him any paperwork, although he asked for it.
The kids, Izabella, 10, and Franky, 6, have been in foster care since July 20.
On July 21, DCS attorney Marlene Simpson told Obion County Juvenile Court Judge Sam C, Nailling Jr. that there was probable cause for the removal of the children. DCS had gotten an emergency removal order to take the kids because someone had reported the parents to DCS.
In its court petition, DCS said the children were removed for “educational concerns, environmental neglect, and drug exposure concerns.” The parents said those were just excuses and they denied the allegations.
Their landlord, Joseph Mathews, was in the process of evicting the family from a rental on 325 Forestdale Ave. in South Fulton.
On Wednesday, July 13, Mathews sent Deborah Turnbo to the house. She gave mother Claudia Gheorghe-Nery an ultimatum. “I begged her basically to please let me do what I can until Saturday. She said, ‘Yes, you have until Saturday but if you’re not out by then I will call child protective services on you.’” She wasn’t out by then and so they did. Turnbo admitted it in a text to Claudia.
A legal eviction can take 1 to 3 weeks. If the landlord wins in General Sessions court, the judge will grant a writ of restitution. Tenants usually have 10 days to vacate. The parents said that they didn’t go to the hearing on June 29 and don’t think their landlord showed up either. In any case they didn’t receive a notice to vacate the property because county sheriffs usually remove you within 48 to 72 hours and that did not happen. (See https://tntribune.com/250000-tennessee-households-face-eviction/)
DCS Gets Involved
On July 19, DCS case manager Jesse Cochran showed up at the house around 10 a.m. with two other DCS workers.
“It was clear that I was in the middle of moving due to all the boxes that I had already packed and carried out on the porch,” said Gheorghe-Nery.
Cochran and his two colleagues invited themselves into the house that was, understandably, in disarray. Gheorghe-Nery explained her situation to them.
Nery was serving an 18-day sentence for an unpaid parking ticket. Claudia had to do all the packing herself. Nery got out of jail on July 19 but was not home when DCS interviewed Claudia earlier that day.
“During the entire meeting at my home, my children played, interacted with your employees, laughed, introduced pets,” Gheorghe-Nery later wrote in a letter to DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.
That’s in sharp contrast to what Cochran wrote in his report. “The children were observed to be dressed in dirty clothing and covered in dirt. Both children had several bug bites on their arms, legs, and backs,” Cochran said.
Gheorghe-Nery called Cochran’s investigation a pack of lies.
“As the meeting went on I was advised to leave and find a place that’s cleaner; without a car it was rather difficult to find a rapid solution to my problem,” she said.
Cochran promised a second interview but that never happened because DCS seized the kids the next day.
“There was no investigation done before KIDNAPPING my kids,” she wrote Nichols.
“I still have no hard copies of the charges and investigation of my case,” Gheorghe-Nery said.
In its report to the judge, DCS claimed they didn’t get a full urine specimen from Mom on July 19 but it showed positive for amphetamines and THC. Gheorghe-Nery said she told caseworker Cochran that she was taking prescription phentermine and pulled the bottle from her purse and showed him. DCS’s Cochran did not include that information in his report to the judge.
DCS’s investigative report is based on the interview while Claudia was packing to move. DCS speculation might prompt further investigation but it’s not enough on its own to justify the emergency removal of the children.
The Child Abuse Hotline collects reports of child abuse from anonymous callers. DCS investigators follow up on those tips to find evidence of serious child abuse. Gheorghe-Nery wrote DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols that her children were never in imminent danger. She said there was no evidence of physical, emotional, neglect, or sexual abuse. In short, DCS had no grounds to take them and she wanted her kids returned immediately.
Later, DCS caseworker Brian Hill wanted the parents to sign a neglect and dependency petition. They refused. It would have given DCS another legal weapon to keep Izabella and Franky instead of returning them to their parents. They did agree to a drug test that both parents passed.
Mom never heard back from Nichols but did get a note from the Customer Relations Unit (complaint department). Margie Quin replaced DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols on September 1.
“They told us personally that our daughter wanted to come home and she wanted to be with her mom and dad because we’re good parents to them. And my son said the same thing to them,” Gheorghe-Nery said.
Life in Foster Care While Parents Fight DCS in Court
Regarding their custody conditions, the foster home is set up with triple-tier bunk beds. “Basically they eat a lot of hot dogs and pizza,” Gheorghe-Nery said. She said they have seen the children twice since they were taken.
“For the first time in my son’s life, who is 6 years old, we found scabs on his head, his skin is dry as dry can be; he had bites all over his legs and his arms visible to the naked eye. Both children were emotional, crying, asking us not to leave them. My daughter won’t remove the nail polish off her toes, because she said that it reminded her of me and she was happiest with me. I did her nails before she was taken from me,” Gheorghe-Nery said.
Judge Nailling held a show cause hearing on July 21. DCS attorney Simpson objected during Nery’s testimony. The judge overruled Simpson and let Nery continue but said that he didn’t want to pull the case out from under the feet of DCS. He set a disposition hearing for August 17. At that hearing the parents asked for a court-appointed lawyer and the judge scheduled the next court date for September 29.
“He should have pulled the case out from under her feet. They take kids from a happy environment and for the first time in their lives they are traumatized emotionally, psychologically, and now I see that there is also physical (abuse),” she said.
Unfortunately, Juvenile Court judges, DCS attorneys, and court-appointed lawyers often fail to reunify the families with the children DCS has wrongfully taken. Parents have alleged that they are not in the courtroom very long and then they go home with or without their kids. An ever-present litigant, DCS is a force to be reckoned with, usually bringing multiple staffers to a trial.
As we have reported, DCS takes into custody about 8,000 kids a year.
Rural Obion County has a population of 30,466. According to its official website, Obion County courts provide “fair, courteous, and timely service to every individual and agency having business with Chancery, Circuit, General Sessions & Juvenile Court.”
There is a dark underside to the picture of friendly corn-growing Obion County. The Nery case raises serious questions regarding evictions as a cause for DCS to intervene. This and other cases have caused local concern that a profit motive is behind their actions.
“Those kids have gone through an immense amount of distress just so that DCS can make some money on my children. I know exactly what they get paid. I’ve been doing my homework. I know what they get paid and why they take them so quickly,” she said.
DCS paid out $ 14,333,900 last year to foster parents and other contract service providers, like the two women who took the Nery children from a church parking lot and the foster parents DCS is paying to feed them hotdogs and pizza