SALEM, Va. – A mother who desperately wants her children back keeps fighting in court. As we’ve reported, 10 News uncovered seven different investigations out of Carroll County.
One of those cases that was investigated is now in the Court of Appeals. This is the first time we’re hearing what happened from the hearings. 10 News was inside the courtroom, and we’re working for you to explain why this one case could set a precedent for other cases in Virginia.
“We’re really in a crisis point in this state, and I think probably in the nation, in how we deal with families in crisis,” said John Koehler, the attorney representing Angie Key.
The mother of three is fighting for custody of her three kids after the county took them away due to substance abuse.
Koehler says a report from the Commonwealth should be part of her case and make a difference in getting her kids back.
It shows how the Carroll County Department of Social Services “showed little regard for the laws, regulations, and policies” that would have protected Angie and her children.
A state investigation found, “From the moment the children were first removed from her care, the agency engaged in actions and made decisions that made it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible for her to be reunited with her children.”
[10 NEWS INVESTIGATES: Carroll County DSS under investigation for violating Virginia laws, rules and policies]
But the report was never seen by a judge, who ultimately ruled it was in the best interest of the children not to have contact with their mom. Angie’s attorney argues the report should have been used in court because it could have changed the outcome.
The timeline is important because it created an insurmountable challenge for the family to get back together.
- May 2019: Her three children were removed.
- May 2021: Juvenile court terminates parental rights with the goal of adoption
- November 2021: Angie files a complaint with the newly opened Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, which can investigate any department of social services. The office investigates, but it’s a months long process.
- February 2022: A two-day trial where the court rules that “substantial progress was not made toward unification”
- April 2022: circuit court terminates Angie’s parental rights and the children have now been in foster care for nearly three years. Half of her youngest child’s life.
“I can imagine he probably thinks his mommy doesn’t want him,” said Angie.
But Angie keeps fighting. She got a new lawyer and armed with the knowledge the state was investigating Carroll County, she requested the court wait for the state’s final report to make a final decision. But at that point, the judge ruled against her.
While the investigation of social services continued, one judge said even if the report would have been critical of Carroll County, “it would not have changed the Court’s findings.”
But Angie and her attorney can’t believe the state investigation isn’t relevant.
Koehler made that argument in front of a three-judge panel earlier this month in the Court of Appeals. “When the trial court said ‘I don’t believe the report would change the court’s opinion.’ My response to that is ‘How can the court know whether the report would change its opinion? When the court doesn’t know what’s in the report?’”
During this time, Angie was drug-free, going to counseling and being regularly drug tested. But the state investigation shows Carroll County didn’t properly handle her case. The state investigation showed:
- ”The lack of urgency or interest” to “achieve reunification”
- ”Lack of meaningful visitation with the children”
- Court records that contained incomplete and inaccurate information, and
- ”Troubling internal policies”
10 News wasn’t allowed a camera inside the courtroom, but we did get a recording of the hearing. Carroll County argues that the children need stability. Koehler argues this case was mishandled, proven by a state investigation and wants Angie to have another chance.
The three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals met to hear the case in Roanoke County. They have yet to rule, but Koehler wants this case to be an example. These state investigations are new and courts haven’t used them to make decisions about children in foster care.
They could give parents like Angie a better chance at keeping their kids when social services violates laws and policies.
Key hopes, “it’s going to change things for others. If it can’t help me and my family, and my children, at least it can help others in the future.”
It could take three months for a decision but Angie plans on possibly taking this to the Virginia Supreme Court if needed.
10 News reached out to Carroll County, but they said they’re not allowed to comment on individual cases.
You can see the previous story we did about Angie and the other Carroll County investigations here.