A Georgetown couple is fighting the biggest battle of their lives as they try to gain custody of their 4-year-old granddaughter.
The problem for them is the girl may be less than three months away from being adopted by a couple in North Carolina.
For Nicole and James Lee, the two-state ordeal began on March 15, 2012 when their other granddaughter — 2-year-old Lucy Rose Clark — died.
The toddler was at her home in Mooresville, N.C. when she was injured. She died shortly thereafter at a hospital.
Her father, Nicholas Clark was home with the child when she was injured but her mother — Sheila Hendley — had left to go to the store, Mrs. Lee said during a recent interview with the Georgetown Times.
Authorities still have not released the cause of the toddler’s death, Lee said, but no criminal charges have been filed.
Lee said her son and his girlfriend say the toddler was injured when she fell off a bed. She said some sort of abuse has not been ruled out which is why the toddler’s sister — Dixie Clark — was removed from her parent’s custody and placed with a foster couple in Mooresville.
Lee said the Department of Social Services in North Carolina is the agency claiming there may have been abuse but they are “just accusations.”
The Georgetown Times attempted to speak with the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office for an update on the death investigation but as of Thursday afternoon the call had not been returned.
Lee said she was warned by DSS if she had any contact with her son or Hendley, she would have no chance of getting her granddaughter.
Court hearing held
This past October, the Lees attended a final disposition court hearing in North Carolina to try to convince a judge it would be in the best interest of their granddaughter, Dixie, if she was living with them.
They were armed with pages of petitions signed by hundreds of people. They also had statements from 25 character witnesses, including some written by local doctors, educators and ministers.
“The judge never took any of that into consideration,” Lee said.
And what the judge said as he explained why he was deferring a ruling surprised the Lees and others in the courtroom.
“The judge said he will go home and pray about it,” Lee recalled. “I don’t think a judge is supposed to be saying something like that in court.”
The judge never had to issue a ruling because the day after the hearing, Clark and Hendley wrote a letter relinquishing their parental rights.
“The judge never ruled. He took the cowardly way out,” Lee said.
Lee said the letter of relinquishment was written about a month after her son was arrested in Georgetown County on a domestic violence charge. She said he was upset because she did not get him out of jail.
The charge against Clark has now been dropped, Lee said.
The letter of relinquishment paved the way for the foster couple to begin the process of adopting Dixie, something the Lees are trying to prevent.
Change of heart?
Lee said she recently had another talk with her son who now says he and Hendley were coerced by North Carolina DSS into writing the letter of relinquishment.
“He said they kept calling him and telling him there was no way I would be allowed to get Dixie,” Lee said.
According to Lee, DSS persuaded her son the child is better off with the foster parents because they are a wealthy couple.
“They were harassed by DSS,” Lee said.
She said her son now wants her to be awarded custody of the child but time is running short.
The foster couple has a final custody hearing scheduled for April. Lee said time is not the only hurdle they are facing.
She said Dixie’s foster mother is very good friends with some of the key players who will be helping to decide where Dixie will live permanently.
A check of the foster mother’s Facebook page shows she is friends with a Department of Social Services case worker and Dixie’s guardian ad litem.
“They are all very cozy. Attend the same parties,” Lee said.
Messages sent to the foster mother by the Georgetown Times seeking comment were not answered.
Efforts to speak with someone from that North Carolina DSS office were unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.
Lee said she is hoping the court, before the adoption hearing, will allow her to present evidence showing Dixie’s parents should not have relinquished their rights.
“We are hoping to show DSS coerced them into signing,” Lee said. “If that can be proven, the (relinquishment) letter can be disregarded.”
On Thursday, Clark confirmed to the Georgetown Times he is willing to write a letter to the court explaining why he feels he was coerced into relinquishing his parental rights.
He said his preference would be to get his daughter back himself but if that cannot happen he wants her to be with the Lees.
Waiting for Christmas
Inside the Lee’s Colonial Estates home, a Christmas tree and other holiday decorations are still in place.
“I am believing my baby will be coming home,” Lee said, adding she has faith the family will get to celebrate Christmas with Dixie, even if it is this spring.
Lee said she has talked with several attorneys and others who deal with custody issues.
“They all say they have no idea why I do not have my grandbaby. I have been told things have been done illegally against me.”
Lee said the ordeal she and her husband are going through is a situation many grandparents are facing.
She said there are many cases in Iredell County of grandparents being denied custody of their grandchildren.
In fact, a website has been created that now has 28 pages of comments from people expressing concerns with the DSS program in that North Carolina county.
“This is not an isolated thing,” Lee said. “And the more awareness that is out there about it, the better the chance something will get done.”
By Scott Harper
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