Why couldn’t Mecklenburg County DSS find mom?

Mecklenburg County DSS officials have said they could not protect a 3-year-old boy who was critically injured because his mother was uncooperative and they couldn’t find her.

But a former caretaker concerned about the child’s safety says she told the agency in March the boy and his mother were living in a west Charlotte motel.

Four people who live or work at the Charlotte Express Inn told the Observer that the boy and his mother stayed there for as long as two months before he was found in a room with severe head injuries on May 20.

The accounts raise questions about how aggressively the county Department of Social Services investigated the case and whether authorities misjudged the threat to the boy.

“This should have never happened,” said Gwendolyn Lee, who said she reported concerns about the boy’s safety to DSS. “I am not understanding why (DSS) didn’t go out there with the police and knock the door down.”

Police have charged the child’s mother, 23-year-old Shamika Reaves, and her boyfriend, 32-year-old Corey McCree, with felony child abuse. McCree is also charged with first-degree sex offense and indecent liberties with a child.

The boy was in fair condition Friday at Carolinas Medical Center. A relative said he has begun breathing without assistance from a machine.

Mecklenburg County Youth and Family Services Director Charles Bradley would not answer most questions from a reporter, citing confidentially laws.

DSS previously said Reaves refused to provide her address and missed scheduled appointments. Reaves disappeared after failing to bring the child to an April 7 interview, the agency said.

State rules require social workers to interview alleged child abuse victims and their parents while investigating complaints.

They must make “diligent efforts” to locate children who are difficult to find. That would include visiting the child’s home at different times and different days.

Two people who live at the Charlotte Express Inn off Freedom Drive said they saw the boy with a black eye and bruises, but didn’t report their concerns to DSS because they were afraid of interfering in another family’s affairs.

Indra Dhillon, a motel worker, said she remembers the mother and her son living there “for quite sometime.” DSS never contacted motel management, she said.

Kim Strom-Gottfried, a professor of social work at UNC Chapel Hill, said the circumstances raise questions about how vigorously DSS pursued the case.

“I wondered why they didn’t secure the kid,” Strom-Gottfried said. “What did they do to assure his safety?”

Troubled family

Interviews and public records suggest the boy’s family life has long been dysfunctional.

His father was released from prison late last year. Two women have obtained temporary restraining orders against him since 2011.

Lee, a family friend, said she took care of the boy for more than a year because Reaves could not afford a place to live.

Reaves worked for a paper company, but Lee said the mother became homeless after a falling out with relatives. Last year, she said she convinced Reaves to come live with her near Beatties Ford Road.

DSS received a report on March 10 that the boy had been sexually assaulted. The agency said the 3-year-old, referred to in a statement as TR, was living with his mother in a home with another woman and her children.

Lee said she reported the complaint to DSS because she worried the child had been sexually abused.

“Oh my God, I am crushed,” said Lee, who described the boy as sweet. “I wish I could get next to him and just hold his hand.”

Reaves moved out of Lee’s house in March. She used an income tax refund to pay for a room at the Express Inn where she, McCree and the boy went to live, Lee said.

Lee said she told a DSS worker investigating the case where Reaves was living.

No background check?

Every month, Mecklenburg DSS investigates 700 to 800 reports of child abuse and neglect. State rules require that the agency interview the child’s primary caretaker the same day social workers speak with the child. Other caretakers living with the child should be interviewed within seven days.

The DSS has said one of its investigators met with Reaves. She was accompanied at that meeting by the child and McCree, officials said.

Asked whether DSS performed a background check on McCree, Bradley said the agency was not investigating whether the child suffered abuse from McCree.

He referred to the agency’s previous public statement, which said officials received a complaint alleging the boy had been abused by another child.

According to a warrant, McCree has been a part of two previous investigations.

In June 2007, authorities looked into allegations he sexually abused his then 3-year-old son. In May 2010, McCree faced accusations involving two 14-year-old girls.

The warrant does not say whether those investigations led to charges. Records show McCree has two arrests on drug charges.

Bradley would not say whether social workers tried to find Reaves at the Express Inn.

Experts said DSS cannot go into homes without permission unless there is clear evidence of imminent danger to the child.

Officials can ask for a court order if parents don’t cooperate with social workers, they said. Social workers can also request police go with them on visits.

“If the allegation is sex abuse, you try pretty hard,” to locate the family, said Joanne Caye, a retired UNC Chapel Hill professor and former child abuse investigator.

Deana Morrow, a professor of social work at Winthrop University, said it is difficult to second guess Mecklenburg DSS in the case.

“The mother’s unwillingness to cooperate with DSS in protecting her child is a critical aspect of this case that cannot be dismissed,” Morrow said.

Asking for forgiveness

A 2012 survey found about 200 families in Charlotte live in weekly motels, said Annabelle Suddreth, former executive director for A Child’s Place.

Many don’t have the money or the credit to move into a house or apartment. When Suddreth’s agency would contact DSS about abuse, she said the families sometimes would move immediately to a motel in another county.

But Reaves was a regular presence at the Express Inn, according to people there.

Two women, who would not give their names, said they saw Reaves’ son outside a few weeks before the arrests. The boy had visible injuries, they said.

One of the women said she feels guilty she did not call DSS. Anyone who sees child abuse is required by law in North Carolina to report it.

The woman said: “I pray for that child to be OK, and I ask the Lord to forgive me for not stepping up.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer