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Mother seeks answers

WINDSOR – The case of a young boy who went missing here for a short time following last week’s annual Windsor Christmas parade has local officials scrambling for answers while the child’s mother also searches for the truth about what happened to him.

Charlene Ruffin, 34, of Windsor has worked with Bertie County Department of Social Services (DSS) since June of this year in the Food Stamps division. What Ruffin wants to know is how her fellow employees, specifically Child Protective Services (CPS) workers from Bertie DSS, allegedly lost track of her five-year-old son for nearly half an hour following the parade.

“We had an agreement that morning (of the parade) at the office; our kids who were going to be in the truck in the parade were going to be with the CPS workers in the truck and we were supposed to meet them afterwards in front of the courthouse,” Ruffin told the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald.

She added, “I told them that morning that this is my one and only son and they had better take good care of him.”

According to Ruffin, her son departed the Bertie DSS truck at the end of the parade route on King Street in between the Bertie County Courthouse and Wells Fargo.  Ruffin says she was told by shop workers who witnessed the goings-on that her son ran up King Street, crossing it several times, and ended up at Lasca’s Pizza on Granville Street before she was able to track him down.

“He probably ran about a mile all by himself… a worker from Dollar General ended up finding him and he stayed there until my mom got there; at that point no one from CPS would tell me where he went,” Ruffin stated.

Ruffin said her son, Stephon, apparently was approached by the Dollar General employee who witnessed him trying to cross the road in heavy traffic.  Ruffin also said the same employee asked her son where his parents were, and when her son said he could not remember her phone number, he did recall his grandmother’s number. Ruffin’s mother contacted her and the mom and son were reunited at the next-door business, Lasca’s Pizza.

According to Ruffin, she was frantic for about half an hour while trying to figure out who had last seen her son and where he might be.

“This was not supposed to be hard… we (DSS employees) had already pre-arranged childcare days prior to the parade and I thought my son would be safe with them,” she stated.

Ruffin said that according to the verbal agreement amongst DSS employees, some had allowed their children to board the truck DSS was hosting in the Christmas parade, with the understanding that the children would disembark from the truck in front of the courthouse.

She added that she stood in front of the courthouse waiting for her son, and her son exited the vehicle and later told her that he saw her.

“My son got out there and told me later that he saw me, but no one stopped to check,” she stated.

It was about 30 minutes, according to Ruffin, before she saw her son again.

“I put my child in the hands of CPS and they lost him. What kind of risk management plan was in place? How are they going to make sure this doesn’t happen again? No one has given me answers as to anyone even being reprimanded for this. This should never have happened. What are they doing to protect our kids?” Ruffin said.

Bertie DSS Director, Cindy Perry, spoke with the RCNH regarding the events on Dec. 8.

“The child jumped out of the truck and somewhere in between, one of our social workers turned her back and in a split second did not see that he was not there anymore,” Perry stated.

She added, “I was told that parents were going to pick up their children at the truck and the social worker thought the parent had already gotten the little boy.”

Perry stated that the child was not hurt and was missing approximately 10-20 minutes according to their records but was reunited with his parent following the incident.

“It will not happen again,” Perry said. “This was an isolated incident and we have and are looking into it fully. The child was not harmed and nothing was done intentionally here.”

Ruffin says that more needs to be looked into, to avoid a similar situation ever happening again with another child.

“I used to be a teacher and we never encountered this when we went on field trips with our kids. We always had to have a plan in place to make sure everyone was accounted for while we were away from the school. Why should this be any different, if not better? They are CPS workers who are supposed to protect our kids, not lose them,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin also noted that her son was the only black child among the approximately dozen or less who were under the supervision of four adults onboard the truck.

“How could they not miss my son? He was the only black child in the whole group; you would think he would stand out for his color if anything. I just don’t understand how they are not held liable,” Ruffin stated.

She continued, “He’s five years old and my son was crossing the very busy streets after a parade… I’m very grateful to the Dollar General worker and the people at Lasca’s who are strangers but helped my son when they saw him in the street. I have been unable to sleep because of picturing my son running up and down it, about to get run over and I trusted him in the care of CPS workers.”

Ruffin says she will appear before the DSS board during their regular meeting on Monday (Dec. 19) and then again to present her son’s story at the regular Bertie County Commissioner’s meeting at 7 pm Monday.

Perry noted, “This is an issue that is ongoing in our office and we will continue to search until we have answers, but be assured that nothing like this will ever happen again.”

No one has been fired or reprimanded thus far from Bertie CPS/DSS.

“Everyone involved was talked to and we are still in talks… if this had happened to anyone else (in the parade), we would be treating it the same way; nothing was intentional and the child was not harmed,” Perry noted.

According to the Windsor Police Department, an investigation is ongoing.

The Roanoke-Chowan News Herald will have more information about this story as it becomes available.