Responding to a plea from the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court judge on Tuesday blocked the return of four children to the Burke County mother charged with abusing them.
The Burke County Department of Family and Children Services took Jeremy and Christine Long's 10 underage children after they were found living in an abandoned house. The agency was poised Tuesday afternoon to recommend sending the four oldest children home to Mrs. Long.
Judge David Roper, who is assigned to the Longs' divorce case, said DFCS's recommendation that the children be returned to Mrs. Long while she faces criminal charges was so unusual that it warranted his court's intervention.
On July 31 Burke County sheriff officers found Mrs. Long, an 18-year-old daughter and 10 underage children living in a rural house that lacked running water or electricity.
According to the prosecutor's motion, there was no food in the house. There were no beds for the children, and they didn't have proper clothing or shoes -- two had never worn shoes. None had been vaccinated or given dental care. The younger children suffered from malnutrition. The children range in age from 1 to 17.
Mr. and Mrs. Long have pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of cruelty to children in the second degree and five counts of failure to provide an education. She is free on a $20,000 bond. He is in jail unable to post a $25,000 bond.
Assistant District Attorney Kristi Connell filed a motion in the case seeking intervention. "I have come to court because I don't know of where else to go," she said Tuesday morning.
Ms. Connell said she was shocked to learn of DFCS's decision to return the children over the district attorney's objections. It appears the only voice the children have is the prosecutor's office, Ms. Connell said.
Prosecutors are also concerned that because Mr. and Mrs. Long are blaming each other for the children's living conditions, Mrs. Long could influence the testimony of the children. She has made statements that contradict the children's accounts, Ms. Connell said.
The guardians appointed to look after the children's interest in juvenile court also oppose the plan to return them while the criminal case is pending.
Attorneys for Mrs. Long and DFCS insisted Tuesday that Judge Roper didn't have jurisdiction in the case. Juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction over deprivation cases.
"This thing is way off base," DFCS attorney Gary Glover told Judge Roper. The district attorney was completely misguided in trying to insert herself into the case, he said.
"DFCS is doing its job in this case," Mr. Glover said. He saw no risk in returning the children to live with Mrs. Long on a trial basis with community support and services, he said.
Mrs. Long's attorney John Flythe told the judge Mrs. Long has done everything required in her case plan and visits with the children at every opportunity. It is not fair to keep her from putting her life back together and reuniting with her children, he said.
Mr. Glover and Mr. Flythe objected to the matter being heard in the Superior Court domestic case. The state has legal custody of the children, and the state isn't involved in the divorce case before Judge Roper, they said.
Judge Roper ruled that the district attorney was within her rights to petition for intervention. The district attorney has duties to intervene in any civil matter in which the state has an interest, and the district attorney has a legal obligation to assist victims, he said.
The law gives children the right to counsel in juvenile court, and Judge Roper appointed the district attorney to fulfill that role.
Judge Roper said that while juvenile court has jurisdiction over deprivation matters, a superior court has jurisdiction over custody. He made the state, which has legal custody of the children, a party to the divorce case, too.
How could the state say it was looking out for the best interests of the children when the child advocates opposed its plan? Judge Roper asked.
"I think the public would be incensed," he said.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.