“They Took Us Away From Each Other”: Lost Inside America’s Shadow Foster System Across the country, unregulated “shadow” foster care is severing parents from children — who often wind up abandoned by the system that’s supposed to protect them. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This story was co-published with The New York Times Magazine. When a staph infection killed Molly Cordell’s mother just before Halloween in 2015, Molly felt, almost immediately, as if she were being shoved out of her own life. At 15, she and her sister, Heaven, who was a year younger, had no idea where they would go. Their dad had been in and out of their lives for most of their childhood. His grief, as their mother lay dying, sent him spinning. It seemed to the girls that he was on too much meth, and whenever he used, he got mean and crazy. Once, he made Heaven watch him set their mom’s Chevy truck on fire. Their older brother, Isaiah, left their home in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains when their mom was still alive, and the teenage girls depended on each other. Molly was deaf in her left ear, and her sister always asked others to speak loudly for her. They shared the same group of friends, the same tanks and capri pants. Although Molly had her own bedroom, she slept on the couch in Heaven’s. The girls moved in with their grandmother, up the road from their wood-paneled house in Cherokee County, North Carolina, a poor, sprawling region at the southwesternmost edge of the state. Their dad lived in a camper in the yard. Their grandmother, too, was trapped in an angry stage of mourning, looking for someone to blame for her daughter’s death. She kept telling Molly and Heaven that it was their fault — if only they’d taken better care of their mom, she might be alive. Molly was starting to believe it. ProPublica Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Thanks for signing up. If you like our stories, mind sharing this with a friend? https://www.propublica.org/newsletters/the-big-story?source=www.propublica.org&placement=share®ion=national Copy link For more ways to keep up, be sure to check out the rest of our newsletters. See All Fact-based, independent journalism is needed now more than ever. Donate In January 2016, Heaven found Molly on the bathroom floor after downing 27 tabs of Zoloft in an attempt to take her life. The hospital where Molly was admitted alerted the child-protective unit of the county’s Department of Social Services, and days later, two caseworkers showed up at their grandmother’s house to investigate neglect. The girls knew they needed help. Recently, their dad, who had never been physical with them, pushed Molly facedown on a dirt path. The sisters told the caseworkers that they couldn’t handle their grandmother’s rage any longer. Molly said that if they left her, she would try to kill herself again. “We thought that maybe they’d place us together or put us in a foster home,” Molly told me. “And the only thing they did was they took us away from each other.” Their mom had always said that if anything were to happen, the girls would live with their great-aunt Sonja, who had worked at a domestic-violence shelter, but no one from the department called her. Nor did the caseworkers file a petition in court to take the girls into foster care. Instead, they dropped Heaven off with her friend’s parents, Angie and Scott Haney. Molly kept asking, “Can I stay here?” But because Molly had admitted to having suicidal thoughts, caseworkers obtained an involuntary-commitment order to place her in a local hospital, where doctors noted her history of depression and anxiety and transferred her to an inpatient psychiatric facility. Ten days later, as Molly remembers it, a short woman with a loud voice and big teeth showed up. Her name was Tamyra White. Molly knew her daughter through friends, but she barely knew the mother. White said she had spoken with the department, and Molly was coming to live with her. At first, Molly was thrilled to have her own bed, in a tidy room painted green and pink. She unpacked sweatshirts, decorated with Spider-Man and Ninja Turtles, that Heaven had chosen for her from the boys’ rack at Walmart, and her small stuffed animal she called Duckie. But within a couple of days, White announced that Molly didn’t need the Vistaril, Wellbutrin or trazodone that the doctors had prescribed, Molly recalls. White flushed the pills down the toilet. (White denies this.) As a stranger in the home, Molly didn’t want to start a fight. As she had told her doctors, she feared “heights, spiders, when people get mad at her.” No caseworker came to check in. When Molly started receiving $643 each month in federal survivor’s benefits because of her mother’s death, she felt resentment from White, who was buying her food and clothes. Molly knew that White had legal authority over her: . . . read the full article here.