Do criminals have more rights than parents in Tennessee?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WZTV) - It is pretty hard to believe that serial killers have more rights than parents in Tennessee, but once you enter the Juvenile Justice System, anything can happen.
And even if you do absolutely nothing wrong, your children can be taken from you. It may sound like a ridiculous question but not when you consider what happened to a Williamson County, Tennessee, mom.
It all started when Tori Harper’s 3-year-old son told her something inappropriate had happened to him when he was with their father. The couple is divorced.
Harper followed the law and reported it to DCS.
“I was interrogated for two to three hours with no videotape, no attorney present," Harper said. "I was a little intimidated, but at that time I still didn't think I had done anything wrong when I realized they were investigating me."
Remember, there is no allegation against Harper, yet DCS asked her to surrender her kids on the spot and relinquish custody during the investigation.
“There was no way I was going to give strangers custody of my children even for a day or two especially with that going on," Harper said. "I wanted my children."
The next day she said DCS secretly went to Williamson County Juvenile Judge Sharon Guffee and asked for an ex-parte order to get custody of the kids. The judge signed the order even though Harper wasn’t present to defend herself.
DCS claimed Harper was mentally unstable.
“I’ve never had a speeding ticket," Harper said. "I have no mental health history. I’m a good mom. I love my kids. I was a room mom that year for my oldest son."
Her lawyer, family law specialist Connie Reguli, said this is standard practice, and it is nasty stuff.
“For people who don't know what ex-parte means, it is behind the back," Reguli said. "They knew Tori. They certainly had an opportunity to get it before the court. Instead, they get an ex-parte order to get her children in custody of DCS. DCS can do whatever they want to them. They obviously didn’t want Tori or her lawyer there."
The only consolation was that Harper's parents would be the foster parents during the investigation. When they all went back to court, Judge Guffee ordered Harper and her parents be drug tested even though none of them had any drug history.
Her father couldn't get to the drug test because he was keeping the kids and didn't have car seats. Harper said DCS locked her and her mom in a room after their drug tests and told them they would send a squad car out with the boys' car seats so Harper's dad could go take the drug test.
Once police finally arrived at the home, they brought a new court order signed by Judge Guffee giving DCS custody of the kids, who were going into foster care that night.
“The things that these people did to our family was so against our Fourth Amendment rights,” said Harper’s dad Tom Naïve. “I said, 'Boys, you got to go with the policeman,' and so I watched them walk to that police car and get in the back of the police car. All I could do is go inside and blow up and blow up. I was helpless."
The oldest boy, Ethan, still remembers that night.
“I was scared," Ethan said. "When I got in the car, I started crying. They told me my grandpa didn’t want me. He had never told me that. It hurt my heart."
This family without a single allegation of abuse or neglect or even a failed drug test lost their two boys to DCS.
“There is nobody that knows me that would say there is anything I love more than being a mom," Harper said. "But one thing I know is I am a good mom, a good mom and I love my kids so much."
So what was DCS and the court hinging this removal on? That Tori Harper was mentally unstable. She got an independent psychological evaluation and passed with flying colors; doctors, dentists, records, report cards, and high test scores formed a lazer-focused rebuttal to DCS and Williamson County Juvenile court.
DCS dismissed the case and Judge Guffee returned the children to Harper. The children were in state custody for two months.
Family law attorney Connie Reguli said this story may sound shocking, but it is common.
“Criminals have more rights and protections than parents," Reguli said. "Once they have your children in the system they are in total control ... and while this may have a happy ending, there are scars and trauma, real trauma."
"So when I got my son back, keep in mind he always held my hair when I would sing him to bed every night," Harper said. "Well, when he was in foster care he was so upset that he would pull his own hair in bed, and he ended up with a big bald spot."
Her son Andrew now believes in monsters and holds his mom's hair, praying they will never come back.
DCS said the law prohibits it from commenting on specific juvenile cases but pointed out that all of its actions were approved by a judge. Tennessee judges are also prohibited from discussing cases.