CARTHAGE – The Moore County Department of Social Services board voted unanimously Wednesday to call for an independent investigation into the death of a toddler who drowned in a pond in April.
The investigation would be the second into the performance of DSS since 23-month-old Rylan Ott died.
Rylan was taken from the custody of his mother, Samantha Nacole Bryant, after she was charged with child abuse in October.
People closely tied to the case argued that Bryant remained unfit as a mother, but a judge said he ruled in December for reunification because DSS demonstrated that minimum safe standards had been met. Reunification is the goal under North Carolina law.
Rylan walked away from his home near Carthage four months after being returned to Bryant and drowned in a pond about a half-mile away.
The board was greeted outside DSS offices Wednesday by more than 20 people who held a silent protest over the way DSS handled Rylan’s case, before and after his death.
The protest was organized by Pam Reed, a former Guardian Ad Litem volunteer who had been assigned to Rylan’s case but quit the day he was returned to his mother. Many of the protesters held signs bearing Rylan’s picture and reading “Rally for Ryan.”
The call for a private investigation follows one completed by Durham County’s Department of Social Services. Moore County has had Durham’s investigative report for about two weeks but has not made it public. Moore County Attorney Ward Medlin said he is still waiting for the N.C. School of Government to help determine whether the document can be released as a public record.
Catherine Graham, who serves on both the county’s DSS board and the Board of Commissioners, said she was the only DSS board member who had been given a copy of the report.
Graham made the motion to call for an independent investigation of Rylan’s case. She said she has ordered all DSS personnel files to be sealed to guard against allegations that they could be subject to tampering.
At the end of the meeting, the board voted to go into closed session to review and discuss Durham’s report.
Before doing so, DSS Director John Benton said that the report revealed significant errors, omissions and oversights in documentation that are “in no way flattering to me or anyone else” in DSS.
But Benton said that, operationally, he and his staff did nothing wrong in Rylan’s case.
After the meeting, Reed said Benton’s statement made her furious.
As a Guardian Ad Litem, it was Reed’s job to serve as an added layer of protection for Rylan, a liaison between the court system and DSS.
Reed became involved in the case after Bryant and her boyfriend were charged with child abuse. Sheriff’s reports say the charges stemmed from a drunken fight that involved guns at Bryant’s house. Rylan and his 13-year-old sister were present at the time. Documents show Bryant was involuntarily committed to a hospital that day.
Reed said Bryant threatened suicide when DSS took her children away.
Rylan went to live with temporary parents appointed by the court – Shane and Amanda Mills of Fort Bragg.
Bryant appeared in court in mid-November thinking she would get her children back. When that didn’t happen, she again threatened suicide and was found unresponsive at her boyfriend’s home, Reed said.
Bryant went to court again on Dec. 17. Shane Mills told the DSS board Wednesday that he repeatedly tried to provide Judge Scott C. Etheridge with information that would show Bryant remained unfit to be a mother. Mills said his family had banned Bryant from visiting Rylan in their home because they feared for their safety.
But Mills said Medlin, the DSS attorney, wouldn’t allow testimony beyond a yes or no answer. Tracy Trepsek, a former foster parent in the county, told the board that Medlin has stymied her in court, too.
Rylan was reunited with his mother after court that day. His sister went to live in a therapeutic foster home.
Reed told the board that DSS wanted to discontinue Rylan’s oversight because it didn’t want to continually travel between DSS offices in Carthage and the Millses’ home on Fort Bragg so his mother could visit him. It boiled down to a matter of resources and money, Reed said.
After the meeting, Reed called Benton’s contention that DSS committed no operational wrongdoing in Rylan’s case “complete and utter hogwash.”
Reed and the Millses said no one from DSS ever visited Rylan in the Millses’ home. And they questioned how a mother who had threatened to commit suicide twice within a month’s time could be deemed fit to raise her child.
Reed was placed on the board’s agenda to speak after receiving an apology from Graham.
The board had denied Reed’s request to be on the August agenda after Graham said it found that no one had ever requested to speak to the board before. For that reason, she said, the board revised its policy, providing a public comment period at the beginning of board meetings and allowing people to be placed on the agenda if certain criteria are met.
The timing may have been bad, Graham said, but the board’s intent was not to silence Reed. Graham praised Reed for bringing Rylan’s case into the spotlight.
Before the meeting, Donna Peters stood in the protest line with her two granddaughters. Peters’ daughter adopted the girls after they had landed in DSS’ protective custody.
Peters criticized DSS for its handling of the case.
“We had a terrible experience with DSS,” Peters said. “We were victims of the carelessness and the lack of quality with the personnel… It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so sad and tragic.
“We’ve got to stand up and do what’s right and oppose what’s wrong.”
Reed said she organized the protest because it’s essential to keep the focus on Rylan’s death so that meaningful changes can be made.
“I am here because of a little boy named Rylan Christopher Ott,” Reed told the board.
Board members said they appreciated Reed’s determination. They said they, too, hope it helps lead to better protection of children.