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Stratton Trial
Rhino Times ^ | Sept. 26, 2002 | Allison Hart

Posted on 10/10/2002 10:30:13 AM PDT by Tai_Chung

A Charlotte couple who has been fighting for nearly two years to regain custody of their 10 children from the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services (DSS) could be thrown in jail if a district court judge finds them to be in contempt of court after a hearing tomorrow.

Jack and Kathy Stratton will appear in a Mecklenburg County district courtroom Friday afternoon, Sept. 27, on charges they owe $4.05 in child support payments and failed to produce tax documents verifying their income after a July 12 hearing.

Previous attempts by the media to attend some of the Strattons’ hearings have been denied by the courts. The Rhinoceros Times has retained Attorney Jon Buchan to file appropriate motions to object should anyone move to close the Sept. 27 hearing. Another closed hearing wouldn’t be a surprise to Jack Stratton. From the very beginning, he said, the courts and the DSS have tried to keep the case a buried secret. The Rhinoceros Times thinks there has already been enough secrecy surrounding the Stratton case.

DSS officials removed the Stratton children from their parents’ home in January 2001 and reported that Jack and Kathy Stratton neglected their children.

After the couple claimed to have met DSS requirements to regain custody of their children, the agency continued to hold the children while issuing new requirements.

On October 16, 2001, Jack Stratton said the court verbally ordered them to pay child support while their children were in DSS custody. But Jack Stratton said neither his attorney at the time, nor his wife’s attorney, received a copy of the order. Jack said he went to the courthouse to search for the order in his file, but a clerk would not allow him to view the file. State statutes regarding juvenile cases where the parents are accused of abuse or neglect prohibit public viewing of case files without a judge’s approval. Not even parents can view the files of their own children. Jack Stratton said his current attorney, who took over the case in November 2001, also searched for the order, but could not locate it.

On July 11, 2002, a Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s deputy showed up on the Strattons’ doorstep with an order for the Strattons to appear in court the following day for failing to pay the support. The Strattons paid the back payments following the July 12 hearing.

Earlier this month, the Strattons received an order to appear at Friday’s hearing on the charge that they still owe $4.05. The motion also indicated the family failed to provide tax returns for 1999, 2000, 2001 and a copy of a tax return extension letter for 2001.

If the Strattons are found in civil contempt of court, they could be held in Mecklenburg County jail until they make the payment. If the couple is found in criminal contempt, they could be fined up to $500, serve a maximum of 30 days in prison or both.

The Strattons said they have had trouble retrieving some documents the DSS wanted from the Internal Revenue Service. They filed for an extension on their income tax returns for 2001 because Jack Stratton was hospitalized for an extended period in the spring. The Strattons have a letter from the IRS verifying the extension, but have not yet turned it over in court.

Jack Stratton said he worries the hearing may be about more than four dollars and some IRS records.

Attorneys for DSS’s Guardian ad Litem Program filed a motion on Sept. 23 that Jack Stratton be held in contempt of court for violating a gag order presiding District Court Judge Elizabeth “Libby” Miller placed on all parties involved with the Stratton case. The Strattons went public with their case in the fall of 2001 after a frustrating year of dealing with DSS and the court system. The family said they have found evidence of corruption within the Mecklenburg County judicial system and within the DSS. Miller has previously stated that she would not comment directly on the Stratton case and that she would not reveal the names of people under the gag order. Nevertheless, Jack Stratton continued to talk about the case and has appeared numerous times before the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners asking for an investigation.

The motion from the DSS includes clippings from Jack’s interviews with The Rhinoceros Times and makes references to his appearances before the commissioners.

Jack Stratton said he’s been warned by both Miller and his attorney not to talk about the case, but said disseminating information through the media and asking local, state and federal politicians to intervene are his only outlet for revealing the alleged corruption that has prevented him from seeing his children in more than a year.

“I’m 99.9 percent sure that I’m going to jail this time,” Jack Stratton said Tuesday. “I fully expect them to lock me up. It’s all coming to a head.”

According to the family, Miller removed herself from the case and issued a findings of fact that recommended termination of the Strattons’ parental rights. The Strattons said they believe this Friday may be Miller’s last hearing before she relinquishes the case.

Mecklenburg County commissioners have cautiously responded to requests to review the family’s case by telling the Strattons that the board needs to learn more about the proper channels it can go through to investigate the family’s claims. Commissioner Norman Mitchell will lead a committee meeting Oct. 1 that will be the first step commissioners take toward learning about DSS’s process of removing children from their homes.

The committee is not planning, however, to discuss the specifics of the Stratton case. Mitchell said Tuesday that he had not heard about the Strattons’ Sept. 27 hearing, and that any county involvement in the legal aspects of the case would have to be initiated by the county attorneys, not commissioners.

County Manager Harry Jones said his staff has not had any further meetings about the allegations since an August 30 meeting with the leaders of the Children’s Legal Foundation and Justice Coalition, a nonprofit organization that is trying to help families like the Strattons work through the legal system.

Jones asked the coalition’s vice-president and lead investigator, Alan Beal, and president Jay Gell for more information about alleged corruption within the county agencies. Beal and Gell said they are now withholding information in light of a possible lawsuit against the county.

“The way I left it with Mr. Beal is that if he provides me with more specific details, we’ll investigate,” Jones said. “But, until that time, we cannot.”

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Front Page News; Government; US: North Carolina
KEYWORDS: children; dss; homeschool; stratton
Charlotte Story

p>A Charlotte father, faced with a court order to keep quiet about his child neglect case, said Friday he'd rather go to jail than obey.

Jack Stratton, accused by social workers of neglecting his 10 children, went to a Mecklenburg District Court hearing Friday thinking he might be thrown in jail on charges he disobeyed a judge's order not to talk publicly about the case.

But after a hearing that lasted at least two hours, District Judge Elizabeth Miller postponed until next Friday her decision on whether to hold Stratton in contempt of court.

Court-appointed guardians for his children had accused him of violating the order by talking to a reporter from a weekly newspaper, The Rhinoceros Times, and allowing the paper to print a picture of the children.

Immediately after Friday's hearing, Stratton went outside the Mecklenburg Criminal Courts Building and talked to any reporter who walked up to him, apparently violating the judge's order.

Stratton told reporters he knew what he was doing, but felt he had no choice. He said authorities have told him he and his wife, Kathy, will lose their parental rights in December.

He said he won't let that happen without a fight.

"I could be served right now with another (contempt of court motion) right now if somebody sees me talking to you," Stratton told reporters. "But that's a moot point right now. There's nothing for me to lose. If I give up now, I might lose my children. I'm not just going to sit and let them take them."

No one during Friday's hearing elaborated on the alleged neglect of the Stratton children. Files in juvenile court cases are generally closed to the public.

Stratton, who said he hasn't seen the children in more than a year, has denied neglecting them. Aided by a citizens' group called the Justice Coalition, he has taken his case before Mecklenburg County commissioners, urging them to look into what he believes to be corruption in local social services and courts.

In Friday's hearing, lawyers for the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services and other agencies wanted him held in contempt of court for violating a year-old gag order in which Miller said that in the best interest of the children, she was barring the litigants from talking about the case with the media or the public.

Roberta Sperry, an attorney advocate for the children appointed through the N.C. Guardian Ad Litem's Office, said Stratton should be punished for participating in the Rhinoceros Times story.

WBT Story

Subpoena served on WBT
Story posted on Thu, October 10, 2002
WBT News

The local District Attorney's office is getting involved in Jack Stratton's custody case and now so has WBT. After failing to prove Jack Stratton violated a court's gag order at last week's hearing, the court has now turned to WBT to prove it's case. Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser says the D-A's office will present evidence at this Friday's hearing. The D-A's office has served WBT with a subpoena for the audio tapes of the September 27th broadcast of the Spires & Krantz show. The court alleges Jack Stratton called in to the show, and spoke about the case. Stratton and his wife are fighting D-S-S for custody of their nine children who were taken by the system nearly two years ago.

1 posted on 10/10/2002 10:30:13 AM PDT by Tai_Chung
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To: Tai_Chung
Why were the children removed in the first place? I'm confused.
2 posted on 10/10/2002 10:44:37 AM PDT by Slyfox
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To: Tai_Chung
I haven't heard about this case before. Can you fill me in on the details? What was the alleged abuse of the children?
3 posted on 10/10/2002 10:45:58 AM PDT by Chi-Town Lady
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To: Tai_Chung
The Fight for Spencer
Christian Family Battling State for Custody of Children, Other Basic Parental Rights

By Angie Vineyard
March 12, 2002

CHARLOTTE, NC (AgapePress) - After battling the Department of Social Services in court for an entire year, a Christian couple has finally been given full custody of their oldest son. A hearing judge for the clerk of Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) Superior Court ruled on February 19 that 18-year-old Spencer should immediately go home with his parents, Jack and Kathy Stratton.

photo of Spencer Stratton“It was like God shining light in [the courtroom],” said Aana Lisa Whatley, who heads up the North Carolina-based McDowell Street Center for Family Law.

Whatley is not involved with the case, but attended the hearing because of her interest in the way DSS handled its procedures. She believes that while this case was unusual, it is an example of why Christians need to be vigilant in dealings with departments of social services around the Carolinas.

“I just thank God that the Strattons finally got a Christian lawyer and that people were watching this case,” she said. Otherwise, she believes, things might not have turned out as they did for the Strattons.

The Nightmare
The Stratton nightmare began more than a year ago, when the Mecklenburg County DSS took custody of all ten of the Stratton’s natural-born children, alleging that the children did not receive adequate care, supervision, and discipline, and their environment was injurious to their welfare. The Strattons have appeared numerous times before Judge Libby Miller to answer those charges in juvenile court. But not until Spencer aged out of the juvenile court jurisdiction in January and his case went before a different judge, have the Strattons seen any progress in trying to get custody of their children.

While in DSS custody, Spencer has been attending Metro School, a public school dedicated entirely to helping children with special needs. His physical and mental state are such that a judge has found him to be incompetent and therefore needing a legal guardian. At the end of the hearing, guardianship was awarded to Kathy Stratton.

“I was cautiously optimistic,” said Kathy, who didn’t believe until the very last minute of the trial that she and her husband would be reunited with Spencer. “It was obvious that DSS had a plan to keep us from our children.”

Questionable Tactics
Kathy isn’t the only one that thinks all objectivity had been lost in the case. “This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Whatley, who works with DSS on occasion through her non-profit law firm. “Most of the time when DSS is involved, there is drug abuse, alcohol abuse (or) domestic violence. But when you have an intact family with a long-term marriage and loving parents, we’ve never seen this situation where they’re trying to take the children away from their parents.”

Whatley is convinced that because the Strattons are an interracial couple with little money, they’ve been unfairly judged. Kathy is African-American and Jack is Caucasian. “They’re being discriminated against because they’re poor,” said Whatley. “This is a family that does not want to take government assistance [and] that is being held against them. This is ludicrous!”

Whatley said that one example of either DSS’s obvious bias or their lack of professionalism involved the condition of the Strattons’ home. After DSS made an initial visit in December 2000, the Strattons moved their children to a log cabin in Gaston County, where they stayed for six weeks before social workers found them. When DSS came to take the children away, they noted in their report that an extension cord ran from the house next door into the Strattons’ window and therefore the Strattons had no electricity. In reality, the Strattons did have electricity. A neighbor had asked to use the Stratton’s electricity to plug up his power saw.

“I thought that was just horrible,” said Whatley. “They had electricity. Yet this entire time, it has stayed in the [court] record that they had no electricity. They never investigated to find out that they did have [it]. It was taking facts that fit what they wanted to believe. They didn’t want to hear the truth.”

Whatley said that until Michael Schmidt of the Patrick Henry Christian Legal Alliance -- the North Carolina affiliate of the Alliance Defense Fund -- took their case last November, the Strattons have suffered from poor court-appointed representation and have never had an opportunity to put evidence in court.

“There’s so much prejudicial information recorded and accepted by the court,” she said.

Questionable Evidence
Tina Ridge, an attorney who works with Whatley at the McDowell Street Center for Family Law who also attended the hearing, was amazed at one social worker’s testimony.

One of DSS’s allegations was that Jack Stratton had sexually and physically abused his children and therefore should not be granted custody. Yet when social worker Susan Miller testified, the social worker initially did not say anything at all about sexual or physical abuse.

“I was really surprised by that,” said Ridge. “If that had been my job and that was a major concern to me as to why I didn’t want the kids to go back [with their parents], I would have made that a priority and she didn’t make it a priority. It was just the last thing she threw in.”

But the reason it was “the last thing she threw in” was because there was no real evidence of any abuse. When Miller finally did make her allegation in open court, she admitted that the only thing that led her to believe Jack Stratton could have sexually and physically abused his children was a drawing that one of the children had made after being taken into DSS custody.

“In my opinion it was one of the most shocking moments of testimony that I have ever witnessed in all of my years of being in trial court,” said Schmidt, an attorney for the Strattons.

“For a so-called professional to get up and make an allegation of enormity and seriousness based upon a drawing of a child when that child has been in foster care and has been around who knows what,” said Schmidt. “I was appalled.”

Social worker Susan Miller did not return phone calls. Nor would other DSS officials speak on the record, but they suggested that this concern over possible sexual abuse was the reason that the hearings had been kept closed to the public, despite repeated attempts by The Charlotte World to have the hearings opened.

Schmidt refused to talk about the Strattons’ nine other children and would only speak about Spencer since he has reached the age of majority.

This Is Progress?
A key element of the DSS case against the Stratton’s parents was the assertion that Spencer had made great progress since being taken from his parents, and by implication that the Strattons had been neglecting Spencer’s development. But Spencer’s own grandmother testified that she didn’t even recognize him after being placed in their care. She remembered Spencer coming next door to her house without any assistance, playing basketball and kickball with his siblings and having a vocabulary. Now, Spencer has lost 10 pounds and is nonverbal.

“If this is progress,” said Joan Stratton, “I don’t want any part of it.”

DSS attorney Tyrone Wade would not speak about the case since it was so closely connected with the Strattons’ nine other children. “There are different rules that apply in adult proceedings and juvenile proceedings,” he said. “I think the judge did what he had to do.”

“They’re just trying to defend their position,” said Whatley of DSS. “They’re not going to say ‘We were wrong.’ If they took these children and said they were wrong, they might have a lawsuit on their hands. They’ve missed birthdays, holidays. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Schmidt said the February 19 ruling was “very significant” and it should “be a very dramatic indicator that the children should all be back in the home of the parents.”

But he added that the fight for the other nine children was an uphill battle “because it’s a fight aligned against an entire system of government employees that essentially work together and who have lost their objectivity because of their hostility toward the parents.”

4 posted on 10/10/2002 10:54:54 AM PDT by Tai_Chung
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To: Slyfox; Chi-Town Lady
The Stratton family is a poor Christian family that refuses to accept government assistance and homeschools their 10 children.

According to interviews, DSS receives bonuses for each child they place in foster care. The Stratton family would be a windfall for DSS.

It has been reported that 2 children were sexually abused while in DSS custody.

5 posted on 10/10/2002 11:00:17 AM PDT by Tai_Chung
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To: Tai_Chung
Were the children starving? Did they have proper housing? Was there any allegations of abuse? Surely there has to be more to this story.
6 posted on 10/10/2002 11:13:44 AM PDT by Chi-Town Lady
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To: Tai_Chung
Reading this kind of a story just makes me want to chew nails. When they get their kids back they ought to sue the $#!+ out of those people. Is the Homeschooling Legal Defense Fund helping them out at all?
7 posted on 10/10/2002 11:14:41 AM PDT by Slyfox
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To: Chi-Town Lady
Were the children starving? Did they have proper housing? Was there any allegations of abuse?

DSS accused the Strattons of all three.

Their house was very small, so they moved to a bigger place to comply with DSS orders.

DSS said they had no food in the house, but the Strattons are poor and purchased their food everyday. The children were not starving.

DSS said the children were abused, but the Judge did not believe it. In fact, the children want to go home.

Also, Mr. Stratton did not have a job at the time DSS took his children away, but he has found a job.

8 posted on 10/10/2002 11:23:08 AM PDT by Tai_Chung
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