Supreme Court of North Carolina.
Exterior of the N.C. Supreme Court / N.C. government photo

A court case that has called into question the practices of the Child Protective Services unit of the Transylvania County Department of Social Services under its previous supervisor could be headed to a hearing at the North Carolina Supreme Court. However, her legal team has asked a lower court to force the county to reinstate her before the Supreme Court decides whether it will weigh in.

Renee Crocker was fired from her job as CPS supervisor with the Transylvania County Department of Social Services in October 2015 for allegedly using her professional connections within the local judicial system to ask a judge about a custody dispute involving her daughter’s boyfriend and his children. Crocker appealed her termination to the state Office of Human Resources, which ruled that the firing was unjustified because county officials hadn’t considered the whole of Crocker’s tenure at DSS when weighing the gravity of her communication with the judge.

The county then appealed the case to the state Court of Appeals, which agreed in March that the firing was improper on those same grounds, and ordered that Crocker be given her job back. The appellate court apparently did not give any weight to an extremely negative evaluation of Crocker’s performance by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services because county officials said it was not the reason for the decision to dismiss her.

Despite that ruling, the county has yet to reinstate Crocker. Transylvania County has appealed to the state Supreme Court on April 10, so the case remains unresolved.

Crocker’s attorney, Don Barton of Brevard, filed a motion with the Court of Appeals on June 12 asking the court to compel the county to give Crocker a job and also give her back pay and compensation for attorney’s fees. Barton wrote that the Supreme Court could take as long as nine months to determine whether it will hear the case and that, in the interim, Crocker is missing out on more than $1,000 in compensation weekly.

A Charlotte attorney representing Transylvania County told Carolina Public Press on Tuesday that the county considers the matter “ongoing litigation,” and otherwise declined to comment for the record.

Supreme Court appeal

Attorneys for the county argued in their state Supreme Court filing that the Court of Appeals judges and the Office of Human Resources administrative law judge erred in their finding that the county had to show “actual harm” as a result of Crocker’s actions in order to justify firing her.

The filing said Crocker’s “communications with a judge on one of the cases she was overseeing … could have significant consequences for those involved” and that “even a delay of a matter of days — resulting of the reassignment of the presiding judge — could result in serious harm to a child stuck in an abusive or neglectful home.”

Transylvania County attorneys filed their motions in the case on April 25. Crocker’s attorney responded on May 5, and argued that the Supreme Court should decline to hear the case and should allow the Court of Appeals ruling to stand.

Prior problems at CPS

Crocker’s tenure at DSS was marred by at least one DHHS review that DSS Director Tracy Jones said in court testimony was “probably the worst review (she’d) ever seen.” Crocker was also warned several times about record-keeping practices that were “grossly out of compliance” with state regulations. Jones, who had previously been the DSS director in Graham County, had only been on the job in Transylvania for a few weeks in 2015 when she made the decision to terminate Crocker.

DHHS regulators found in an earlier 2015 audit that more than half of a sample of 55 reports of abuse or neglect weren’t screened properly and that half of reports that were screened out of the system didn’t contain enough information for regulators to determine why the cases didn’t move forward.

Auditors also found that CPS was placing some children who were removed from their parents with relatives or family friends who hadn’t gone through a thorough criminal background check and that DSS workers weren’t keeping proper records related to contact between social workers and parents.

The state also cited a lack of staff training under Crocker’s supervision and was told by DSS staff members that Crocker had occasionally discouraged them from receiving further training, which led to staff members being unfamiliar with some of the basic laws and policies related to their work.

Family dispute

Crocker’s termination from Transylvania DSS, where she had worked since 1999, came after she intervened in a custody battle between her daughter’s boyfriend, Marquis Swarn, and a Brevard woman. According to court filings, Swarn and the mother of his children were involved in court action that was presided over by Judge Emily Cowan. Crocker and Cowan had a close working relationship, and Crocker texted the judge to ask about the legality of taking one of Swarn’s children out of state on vacation.

Following the communication with Crocker, Cowan recused herself from hearing any more sessions of Swarn’s case, though without giving an explanation for the recusal. The communication between Crocker and Cowan, known in legal terms as an “ex parte communication,” came to light thanks to a recording of a court session in which Swarn’s attorney said Cowan recused herself because of “communications with one of the parties” that “made it probably improper for her to hear this motion,” according to court filings.

Jones said in Crocker’s termination letter that the firing followed “multiple complaints and allegations … made against you with all involving use of your position with the Transylvania County Department of Social Services to influence court decisions in a private custody case that is not affiliated with our agency.”

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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