After the death of Onslow County, North Carolina, toddler, Mariah Woods, the community became outraged that social workers didn’t intervene in time, especially after her father leaked documents that indicated child social service workers knew of alleged physical and sexual abuse, reportedly by the mother’s boyfriend.
North Carolina Division of Social Services (DSS) director, Heidi Baur, spoke with local media outlet, The Daily News, after outcry from the community who demanded answers. According to Bauer, social workers visit and/or call the reported family and unless they determine apparent abuse, they don’t report the incident to law enforcement. Instead, they keep the record on file.
“The decision is made on how fast we have to respond,” Bauer told The Daily News.
Onslow County DSS attorney Lorna Welch added that DSS workers look for “immediate risk of immediate harm” before they take action. She said that the children typically stay in their homes with their parents or caregivers while they investigate, unless they deem the situation unsafe and harmful.
“Whenever we realize that a case is at that level, we invoke the court’s involvement.”
If the child is considered unsafe, DSS typically looks for a family member the child can stay with while DSS investigates.
“We look at how long they’re willing to provide (a home). It’s good for us to know because we want to keep the kids from having to jump around so much…..If someone has lots of family support, lots of friends, peers that are able to help them . . . it is probably less likely that we’re going to be looking at a court action because they have ways to avoid it.”
What happened in the case of Mariah Woods and why did DSS determine the child was safe in her mother Kristy Hunter’s care?
According to the leaked court documents that Mariah’s father, Alex Woods, provided (which DSS cannot confirm as official due to disclosure laws), the court believed that Woods’ children may have been exposed to “a substantial risk of physical injury or sexual abuse because of the parent, guardian, custodian, or caretaker has created conditions likely to cause injury or abuse or has failed to provide, or is unable to provide, adequate supervision or protection.”
Further, the documents detailed allegations against Earl Kimrey, the boyfriend of Hunter. According to the documents, Kimrey was accused of “hitting both of the juveniles (Hunter’s two young sons) with a belt,” and sexually abusing Mariah. The report also indicated that Kimrey allegedly used a number of illegal drugs, including methamphetamine and heroin.
Although DSS cannot speak specifically on Mariah’s case, social workers deemed the child’s situation as an immediate risk and for a few months, granted Woods custody of his children. Yet, within a few months, Hunter regained custody and took the kids back. Woods told CrimeOnline that Hunter lied and claimed that one of the boys fell off of a bunk bed and hurt himself accidentally. This, according to Bauer, is where things can get murky.
For instance, in an example DSS case, a parent may say a child fell and got injured on accident. If a doctor confirms that the injuries don’t appear to be abuse and if the child agrees it was an accident, they generally have no cause to believe the child was abused, and therefore, the child is taken from the person who had temporary custody and given back to the custodial parent.
“These (cases) are very much handled on a case-by-case basis,” Welch added.
In addition to taking each incident on a case-by-case basis with no real formula, DSS workers have mounting caseloads to handle. There are currently 87 employees involved in 345 county investigations, 109 in-home cases, and 260 foster care cases.
Mariah Woods was living with Hunter and Kimrey when she disappeared on Nov. 28. She was later found dead in a lake not far from her Onslow County home. No one has been charged with murder for the little girl’s death, but Kimrey was arrested for concealing her death, along with numerous theft-related charges.
The investigation is still ongoing. So far, there is no word of Mariah’s official cause of death.
Additional Reading on Mariah Woods
[Feature Photo: Mariah Woods/Family Handout]