Highland County Juvenile Court Judge Kevin Greer ordered a juvenile — who is currently in the permanent legal custody of Montgomery County Children Services — to be placed in the temporary custody of Highland County Children Services Friday morning.

According to a complaint filed Thursday afternoon in Highland County, the juvenile is “in the permanent custody of Montgomery County Children Services” and had been placed in the home of a Highland County woman. On Sept. 29, during an emergency hearing in Highland County Juvenile Court, the woman’s biological children were removed from the home and placed in HCCS custody after the woman allegedly tested positive for methamphetamine, among other allegations.

The complaint said that MCCS was “notified about the concerns” for the home, and that there was a “safety plan” implemented for the juvenile to stay with a neighbor instead of the woman. However, the complaint said that it was “reported” to Highland County that “an adoption hearing” was to take place for the woman and the juvenile on Friday, Oct. 8.

On Thursday, Oct. 7, the juvenile’s school “reported concerns” to Highland County Job & Family Services about the juvenile “as they were aware of the circumstances surrounding the removal of [the woman’s] children,” the complaint said. School staff alleged that the woman had since signed the juvenile out of school and “left with” the juvenile, and that the juvenile “told school officials” that the juvenile was “residing” with the woman.

After HCCS supervisor Stephanie Newman contacted MCCS adoption supervisor Kelcie Paxson, Paxson told her that their agency was aware of the woman picking up the juvenile from school; that they were aware of the drug test results; that “Montgomery County’s interactions have been ‘different’ than Highland County’s” and that MCCS had plans to “follow up” with the woman Oct. 8, according to the complaint.

As a result, the Highland County agency filed the complaint alleging that the juvenile was abused, neglected and/or dependent and asked that the child be placed in their emergency temporary custody.

At the hearing Friday morning in Highland County Juvenile Court, the HCCS agency was represented by Highland County assistant prosecutor Molly Bolek, with Newman also present. MCCS manager Lesley Keown and Paxson represented their agency. Also attending the hearing were Highland County prosecutor Anneka Collins; assistant prosecutor James Roeder; and Highland County Job & Family Services director Jeremy Ratcliff.

Throughout the hearing, Greer questioned the Montgomery County supervisors on the allegations in the complaint, beginning with the report of an adoption hearing scheduled for Oct. 8 for the woman and juvenile.

Paxson clarified that there was originally a “legal custody hearing” scheduled, but that the agency wanted to “withdraw their motion for legal custody” to the woman. She said that the agency’s legal counsel advised that they would have to “go on the record” to withdraw.

“We did not have intention of moving forward with the legal custody,” she said.

Greer asked Paxson if the reason for that was because of the woman “testing positive for methamphetamine.”

“It was the removal of [her] children,” Paxson said.

According to the complaint, an allegation made in the woman’s Highland County case was that one of the woman’s biological children alleged that the mother was forcing the child to live in an outbuilding without running water or electricity. The child alleged that the juvenile in MCCS custody also lived in that outbuilding.

Greer asked Paxson if she was aware of those allegations. She said that “was made aware of the outbuilding situation last Tuesday” during a visit to the woman’s home Sept. 28 when she spoke to the juvenile in MCCS custody, but that up until that point she was under the impression the juvenile had been staying in the woman’s residence.

The judge then asked how MCCS “found” the woman “as a possible placement” for the juvenile. According to Paxson, the woman had “cared for [the juvenile] in the past” when the juvenile’s mother had lost custody. She said that the two of them had “phone contact” with each other, and they were “bonded.”

Paxson said that in February 2021, she contacted HCCS to do a home study on the woman, which she said was done in April. A MCCS caseworker discussed adoption vs. legal custody with the woman, and both the woman and juvenile indicated they were “OK with” the legal custody arrangement.

“Shortly after that, [the juvenile] went AWOL,” Paxson said. “I was unable to locate [the juvenile]. I came down here, and [the woman] was able to get [the juvenile] on the phone, and we allowed [the juvenile] to come and stay with [the woman]. That was in June.”

Greer said that Paxson was aware for “roughly 10 days or so” that the woman had allegedly tested positive for meth, to which she said, “Correct.”

“But it’s OK for [the juvenile] to remain with [her]?” the judge asked.

Paxson said “No,” and explained that when she visited Sept. 28, she was with the woman and juvenile “for a significant amount of time exploring different options” for possible placement. She said they placed the juvenile with the woman’s neighbors, after she said she ran background checks on them.

“Our plan was for [the juvenile] to stay there,” she said. “I was scheduled to come down today to pursue making it a more long-term placement.”

Greer then addressed the allegation that the woman had taken the juvenile from school Oct. 7. Paxson said that the woman had contacted her first and asked if she could pick the juvenile up.

“I said, you need to pick [the juvenile] up and take him directly to [the neighbor],” she said, adding that “within an hour,” the neighbor confirmed that the child was returned to the home.

“So someone that tested positive for meth, had her own children removed — it was OK for her to pick this child up from school and transport this child?” Greer asked.

“I did feel that it was, yes,” Paxson said. “I have never observed drugs or alcohol in the home. I have never observed [the woman] to be under the influence.

“She has been clear and coherent. She has ensured that all of [the juvenile’s] needs were met. She has ensured appropriate care for [the juvenile] until the events that occurred last Tuesday. So yes, we felt it was safe.”

“We’re just going to have to have an honest disagreement there,” Greer said. “My experience is people using meth can’t take care of themselves, let alone a child. It’s pretty concerning to me that with your background, training and experience, you would let someone using methamphetamine transport a child. It sounds to me like it was more of a matter of convenience.

“It doesn’t work that way in Highland County.”

The MCCS supervisors said “We now know that,” and Greer said, “It shouldn’t in any county.”

“We don’t let people who recently tested positive for methamphetamine pick a child up from school,” the judge said. “I would be concerned that you allowed this child to move just across the street of someone with the character, apparently, that this mother has. The fox is too close to the henhouse.”

Greer asked about the MCCS agency’s plans for permanent placement for the juvenile. Paxson began giving a background on the juvenile’s childhood and education, which the judge interrupted.

“I’ve probably either presided over or prosecuted 20,000 cases like what you’re talking about,” he said. “I understand the background.

“My question is not what has happened, but what is your plan for the future?”

Paxson said that MCCS wanted the juvenile to stay in Highland County because that is where the child has been most responsive to school.

“With who?” Greer asked.

Paxson said that they were hoping to complete a home study with the neighbors with whom the child was placed or “a foster home in Highland County.” She added that they had been “unable to find any foster homes” in Highland County when they searched before.

“It sounds like a lot of ifs to me at this point,” Greer said, and asked Bolek to speak on the Highland County agency’s behalf.

According to Bolek, Highland County had concerns about the whereabouts of the juvenile, but that “right before” the hearing, she was told the juvenile was at a local residence with the neighbor with whom the juvenile was placed.

“Our agency searched for (the juvenile) last night, went to several residences,” she said. “There’s two homes that [the woman] floats between.

“We were not able to make contact last night.”

Bolek said that she was also told that “unsupervised visits” between the woman and juvenile were taking place while the juvenile was staying with neighbors. She also addressed another allegation in the complaint that the woman was allegedly hiding a man “on drugs” who has “a felony warrant” in her home.

“[The woman] has not been cooperative with our agency,” Bolek said. “Law enforcement has been actively looking for [the man with a warrant].”

The assistant prosecutor pointed out that the woman’s biological children were placed in a Highland County home and “doesn’t know why” the other juvenile “was treated differently.” She asked for HCCS to be given temporary custody to ensure the safety of the juvenile.

“Perhaps the two agencies could work together to find an appropriate placement or even a foster home,” Bolek said.

In response, Keown said that “some of the things that we would be OK with in Montgomery County are not OK here.”

“Would meth use be one of those?” Greer asked.

“Meth use is not OK,” Keown said. “We also did a drug screen, and she tested positive. It’s not that we are ignoring those concerns. We don’t believe [the woman] is an appropriate full-time caregiver.

“Our decision-making about the unsupervised contact had to do with our experience with [the woman] and [the juvenile’s] age.”

Keown added that she wanted MCCS to “retain permanent custody” because giving HCCS temporary custody doesn’t “necessarily make the best long-term sense.”

“The plan that we made, we thought, was a good plan,” Keown said. “Ideally, what I’d like to see happen is we maintain permanent custody and work with Highland County to find a foster home in this county.

“We would not do anything that we believe would put [the juvenile] at risk.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to disagree with you,” Greer said. “It’s already happened. The question is should I allow the opportunity to happen again? I think the answer to that is obviously no.”

Greer ordered the temporary placement of the juvenile into HCCS custody, but MCCS “remains custodians under the law,” he said, since they are “serving the place of parents” for the juvenile.

“This child has been put at risk far too long and far too many times,” Greer said. “Allowing a person you knew, from your own testimony, had recently used meth to take a child from school is truly beyond my comprehension.”

Greer said he “hoped the agencies do cooperate” and get the case resolved “sooner rather than later.”

“But I’m going to allow our agency to make decisions on where [the juvenile] is placed,” he added.

In addition, Greer issued an order of “absolutely no contact, direct or indirect,” between the woman and juvenile.

Before adjourning, Greer asked if the MCCS supervisors had any questions. They asked how they could contact the juvenile, and the judge said, “Through our agency.”

Roeder also asked if anyone had visited the location where the juvenile supposedly was staying as of Friday. Bolek said that she was told the neighbor caretaker had confirmed the juvenile’s location at that address during a phone call Friday morning.

Keown then said she felt Roeder “gave the impression we wantonly didn’t notify you all of where this child was” and said that she had spoken with representatives from Highland County caseworkers who could have reached out to her with concerns.

“I don’t want your court or your prosecutors thinking we weren’t willing to give up that information,” she said.

Collins replied that she called Thursday and left a message “as soon as we got temporary custody and couldn’t find” the juvenile, which she said was not returned.

“It’s not unusual for head-butting to take place between agencies,” Greer said. “It should not and cannot interfere with making the proper decisions for any child.

“Let’s do what’s best for [the juvenile]. If you guys can’t figure it out, I’ll figure it out for you. I just did.”