This investigation is published as a partnership between The Assembly and WBTV in Charlotte.
The police officer stood on Samantha Wynn’s front porch in East Durham, flanked by social workers and other officers, trying to keep the tension from boiling over.
“What they’re saying is, they’ve got paperwork from the courts saying they’re taking the kids,” he explained matter-of-factly.
By July 28, 2021, Samantha’s grandchildren—Prince and Zion, then 2 and 3, respectively—had lived there with her since Child Protective Services investigators accused their mother, Alexis Wynn, of neglect and petitioned a court for custody in December 2019. Though Durham County social services officials told a judge two months earlier that they wanted Samantha to be the kids’ permanent guardian, their plans had apparently changed.
“I don’t have the paperwork. I’m only relaying what they’re saying,” the officer said. “If they don’t get the kids by four o’clock, you’re going to face kidnapping charges.”
Samantha was livid. “These kids are in good care,” she said sharply in a cellphone video she later posted to social media. “I’m their grandmother, and y’all want to snatch them out of my arms and put them in somebody’s house that they don’t even know?”
The officer and a social worker beside him looked down and didn’t respond. The video footage cuts to Prince and Zion strapped into car seats in the back of an SUV, their faces blank and bewildered as Samantha prayed loudly for Jesus’ protection.
The camera pans to 22-year-old Alexis, her petite body curled in a ball beside the car, heaving as she silently sobbed.
“Come on, sweetie,” an officer said. He extended his hand, but Alexis ignored it. He gently grabbed her arms and pulled her away from the vehicle. She didn’t resist.
“Look what they’re doing to my daughter, y’all,” Samantha said. “Look what they’re doing to my daughter.”
Prince and Zion were among 90 children who entered DSS custody in Durham in the 2019–2020 fiscal year, and 4,600 taken into care throughout the state, according to a database maintained by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Jordan Institute for Families.
About 11,000 North Carolina children, including 285 in Durham County, were in DSS custody at the end of September. On average, they’ll be in the state’s care for one to two years—and even longer in Durham, which maintains custody for an average of 875 days, the second-longest timeframe in the state, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. And despite federal and state laws requiring “reasonable efforts” to reunify families, most will never go home.
Their parents are disproportionately Black and overwhelmingly poor, and often lack the resources to battle a powerful system that operates with little scrutiny.
This side of the child welfare story—what happens to mothers like Alexis after their children enter the system—is seldom seen. It plays out in courtrooms where records are sealed, journalists’ notes are seized, and observers can be ejected on a judge’s whim—even as families are ripped apart.
There’s no question that some children live in dangerous environments, and it’s in their best interest to be removed from their homes. At least 45 kids died of abuse or neglect in North Carolina in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When that happens, social services officials come under fire. But there are few consequences for wrongly removing children from their homes.
“There are a lot of mantras in the child welfare system,” said Matt Anderson, a former executive of the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, which runs the state’s largest foster-care placement program. “One is ‘better safe than sorry.’”
Of the more than 43,000 cases of child “maltreatment” the state recorded in 2020 and 2021, only about 10 percent involved victims of physical or sexual abuse. The vast majority—over 95 percent—suffered from “neglect,” a term that experts say is often synonymous with poverty.
That was the charge leveled against Alexis Wynn.
Watch our partner WBTV’s television segment on this story.
Her story, like those of many parents entangled in the child welfare system, is complicated, and laws designed to protect children’s privacy obscure vital details. But one thing is clear: No one had accused Alexis of hurting her children. Instead, she was a domestic violence survivor who lacked resources middle-class families take for granted—and for that, she nearly lost her boys forever.
“I was trying to get help to protect me and my children,” Alexis said in an interview earlier this month. “You’re supposed to help families, but instead, you’re tearing them apart. You’re destroying them.”
This article is the first in a three-part investigation by The Assembly and WBTV looking at Durham County’s child welfare system. Durham has become a hub of parental rights activism in recent years, helping bring to light cases that would have otherwise been obscured by laws designed to protect children’s privacy. But experts and advocates say the issues raised in this series are not unique to Durham.
Each installment explores the case of a parent who spent years fighting to regain custody of their children. The first chronicles what happens when a parent is accused of neglect. The second and third parts will dive into the system’s secretive legal apparatus and reforms that advocates argue would make the system fairer.
Together, they show a system that sometimes fails to live up to the state’s goal of “preventing [the] breakup of the family” where “desirable and possible.”
The Durham County Department of Social Services obtained legal custody of Prince and Zion Wynn on December 30, 2019, after alleging that their mother “was exposing her children to an injurious environment” that had “human fecal on the beds, floors, and other surfaces.”
Alexis had “threatened to kill herself and the children” before she “disappeared,” the petition continued. She was “homeless” and “might suffer from some undiagnosed mental health disorder.”
Alexis says that’s not what happened.
A month earlier, she left the home she shared with the boys’ father, whom court records indicate was jailed following charges of domestic violence. Alexis says a Durham crisis center referred her to a domestic violence shelter in Onslow County—the place the DSS petition alleged was so contaminated with human fecal matter that it was negligent to have children there.
She says the shelter’s staff told her that, at 21, she was too young to be a parent, scolded her for bringing her children to a shelter, and one staff member offered to adopt her babies. Alexis says that after she left, the shelter reported her to Child Protective Services.
She denies being homeless; instead, she says she and her sons lived with her mother while she tried to get back on her feet. She also denies threatening to harm herself or her children.
However, according to Amanda Wallace, a former CPS investigator and activist who wrote a report on Alexis’ behalf, she did leave her mother’s house following an argument on December 19, 2019, and her mother was concerned enough to call law enforcement. Police found her in a Waffle House in Orange County.
“When they did find Alexis and the kids in Orange County, they were safe and fine,” Wallace said. The police “actually transported Alexis back to her mom’s house because they could see that it was just a family issue.”
Eleven days later, Durham County’s Department of Social Services petitioned for custody of Prince and Zion. Alexis says a social worker told her to sign papers that put the boys in her mother’s care or she would go to jail. The alternative, the social worker said, was foster care—and because Durham didn’t have enough foster homes, Prince and Zion would be split up.
“I was so scared, so I just signed it,” Alexis said. “It was hard to process everything that was going on in that moment.”
Prince and Zion could stay at her mom’s house, but Alexis had to leave—an odd outcome considering that the DSS petition faulted her for being homeless.
District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart imposed a series of requirements for Alexis to get her children back. She had to find a job and housing. She eventually went to live with her twin sister, and like the boys’ father, was permitted only supervised visits with Prince and Zion.
She was also ordered to attend parenting classes and therapy (court records indicate that she was diagnosed with anxiety), take drug tests (she faced no allegations related to substance use), undergo multiple mental health assessments, and meet weekly with a case manager.
“You feel hopeless,” Alexis said. “You feel very stressed out, and it’s hard to function day-by-day because they have you go through all these hoops just to get your kids back.”
If she missed class because of work, the court might hold it against her. If she skipped work to attend class and got fired, the court might hold that against her, too. If she was late to visit her kids because DSS officials scheduled visitation right after her therapy, the court might take that as a sign of disinterest.
Court records show that in September 2020, Judge Rhinehart declared that Prince and Zion had been neglected—the family court equivalent of convicting Alexis. In May 2021, Rhinehart said Alexis couldn’t regain custody because she “does not have stable housing”—despite living with her sister—and hadn’t finished her court-ordered classes.
Rhinehart said the best “permanent plan” would be for their grandmother, Samantha, to become the boys’ legal guardian. But two months later, Durham police took them into foster care in the encounter captured on her porch.
Social services officials later explained in court filings that they suspected—but couldn’t “verify”—that Samantha had allowed the boys’ father unsupervised visits. They also chafed at a perceived lack of cooperation: Samantha demanded that social workers show proof of COVID vaccinations before entering her home, insisted on reviewing the county’s policy on unannounced visits, and asked them not to photograph the boys.
Alexis worried about how Prince and Zion were being treated in foster care. During supervised visits, she says she noticed that they had bruises, black eyes, and busted lips. (Wallace’s report contains photos that appear to show these injuries.) But Alexis says DSS caseworkers ignored her concerns and threatened to end her visits.
“I had to sit through all that,” Alexis said, “and the caseworker would come up and look at my children and be like, ‘Stop telling your mom lies.’”
Any Means Necessary
Alexis thought the system was moving inexorably toward terminating her parental rights and putting her sons up for adoption. That began to change after Amanda Wallace saw the footage of social workers taking Prince and Zion.
Wallace spent a decade working for CPS in Lincoln, Buncombe, and Wake counties. At first, she believed she was helping families. But her cases started to challenge her preconceptions. She recalls a time when she removed a child she knew was safe, and neither her colleagues nor the judge questioned her.
“It really weighed on me morally,” Wallace said. “I’m like, how did that happen?” She came to believe that the system “did not care about anything. It makes a decision, and then it’s just going to run with it.”
In April 2021, Wallace founded Operation Stop CPS to advocate for parents battling the system. A month later, Wake County’s DSS fired her, she says. (Earlier this year, a Wake County grand jury charged her with illegally accessing a government computer just before she left, though the indictment provides scant details. Wallace declined to comment on the pending charge.)
Operation Stop CPS began protesting for Alexis in June 2022. Wallace’s hardball approach won her few friends inside the system.
In August 2022, Durham County’s DSS obtained a restraining order against Wallace, alleging that she and her supporters had harassed employees by “shouting defamatory statements” outside the department’s office. The petition also said that Wallace had gone to the home of the department’s director and yelled into a bullhorn that he was a “racist” and a “kidnapper.”
Wallace appealed—with support from the ACLU of North Carolina—pointing out that she never threatened anyone and arguing that her right to free speech outweighs DSS employees’ concerns about her “inflammatory rhetoric” and “moral judgments.”
The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in June but has not released a decision.
Wallace got under Judge Rhinehart’s skin, too. She imposed a protective order on July 1, 2022, forbidding parties in Alexis’ case from speaking with the media or outside organizations, “including but not limited to Operation Stop CPS.”
But Wallace didn’t stop. Operation Stop CPS supporters besieged Rhinehart’s social media with comments alleging that she “destroys black families”—Rhinehart is Black—and texted and called the judge’s cell phone, asking, “Why are the Wynn children not returned home?”
Less than a month later, Rhinehart recused herself from the case. “The Court is now deeply concerned about her physical and personal safety,” Rhinehart wrote in a July 27, 2022, order.
Alexis believed Rhinehart uncritically deferred to DSS lawyers—a common complaint about judges in these cases—and thought her attorney didn’t fight hard enough on her behalf. Wallace’s intervention solved both those problems. The new judge, Nancy Gordon, appointed what Alexis viewed as a more aggressive lawyer, and Wallace says that the DSS’ opposition faded on Gordon’s watch.
Rhinehart—whom Gov. Roy Cooper appointed to the superior court in February—did not respond to a request for comment. The Durham DSS said it could not comment on specific cases.
“I can state that it remains the agency’s mandate and goal to provide services to families and children to ensure their safety and well-being with reunification being the primary focus,” Durham DSS director Maggie Cveticanin said in an email.
On August 4, 2023—1,313 days after DSS officials took custody of Prince and Zion—Alexis officially got them back. In her order, Gordon wrote that “the children are bonded to their mother and desire to be reunified.”
Alexis quickly left North Carolina. She asked that this article not reveal her current location.
“I won, and they didn’t want me to,” Alexis said. “They didn’t come up with a plan to help me and my children stay together and be somewhere safe. They failed at that.”
Reporters met with her in an apartment rented for this interview. Prince and Zion ate pizza, wrestled rambunctiously in the living room, and staged a dance competition to Toosii’s “Favorite Song,” which is, it seems, their favorite song.
To Wallace, who looked on from the kitchen, this scene justified her brass-knuckle tactics.
“The kids are here,” she said, smiling.
A Safe Place
Critics say Alexis’ story illustrates an inherent flaw of the child welfare system: It punishes poverty. While investigators believed Alexis was homeless, they made her prove her worth as a mother instead of helping her find housing.
But blaming judges and individual social workers misses the point, said Anderson, the former Children’s Home Society executive.
“The child welfare system is not the problem,” he said. “The child welfare system is a symptom of broader social justice issues. We still have a large group of families that are under-resourced, underserved, and then over-surveilled, over-policed, and over-investigated. If we’re concerned about the safety and well-being of kids, how can we demonstrate that by how we care for the well-being of their parents?”
Last year, announcing that “my values weren’t aligned with my work,” Anderson left his job to found Proximity Design Studio, a production and consulting firm that works to keep families together. His goal is to change perceptions.
“The narrative is that if you’re caught up in the child welfare system, you’re a bad parent who’s perpetuating harm against your child,” he said. He wants to promote the counter-narrative that “these are parents who love their children, are doing the best for their children, and are dealing with very easy-to-solve economic, social-support issues. And if we were to invest in meeting those needs, families would be just fine.”
The state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees local social services agencies, points out that under state law, poverty does not necessarily equal neglect.
“A lack of resources may be a contributing factor, but it is one of many factors that caseworkers consider in assessing an allegation of neglect,” said spokeswoman Kelly Haight Conner. “Families facing economic difficulties may struggle to provide proper care, supervision, or a safe and nurturing environment for their child.”
Haight Conner said the department is focused on social and environmental factors—including poverty, housing, and food insecurity—associated with child maltreatment. The state budget and recent Medicaid expansion fund programs to address those needs.
“Ultimately, the highest priority is to protect the safety and well-being of all children and families,” Haight Conner said.
Alexis says her family would have been better off if the system had never gotten involved. Her boys are 4 and 6 now, and to a stranger’s eyes, they seem unfazed. But their mother sees the remnants of trauma in moments when they shut down and worries that her absence during those formative years will continue to affect them.
“They’re starting to be better, day by day,” Alexis said. “They’re starting to open up more. The moments where I see them start to be like Zion and Prince again, it makes me happy. Everything’s not going to heal overnight.”
Then there’s her own trauma, which Alexis—whose story will be featured in the New Yorker documentary To Be Invisible next year—admits she’s still trying to put it behind her.
“When I look back, I just think about all the obstacles that I had to go through to get to this moment,” she said. “I just know that my kids are safe with me now.”
Next week: Part 2 of this series goes inside Durham’s abuse, neglect, and dependency courtroom.
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at email@example.com.
Whitney Clegg is an investigative producer at WBTV. She has previously reported for Reveal, ProPublica, and CNN’s investigative unit, as well as for books on Jeffrey Epstein, Donald Trump, and Turning Point USA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org