By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
(THE TENNESSEAN - Clay County) A Clay County couple whose two children died within five months of one another - prompting a state investigation last year - have begun a court-ordered process to regain custody of their third child.
Derek and Sherry Head said they welcomed their surviving 13-year-old daughter for a home visitation Thursday and will soon have her for an overnight visit, and then a multiweek trial period in which she'll be back in the home.
"She's going home if everything goes well. Every day, all day," Sherry Head said. "I'm really anxious for her to come home. It's been really hard for us."
The couple said a county judge approved the plan earlier this month, and relatives confirmed the basic details. They have no income but plan to support themselves the way they have in the past, by cobbling together odd jobs and relying on community help.
Department of Children's Services spokesman Rob Johnson declined to explain the agency's stance on reunification, say what types of monitoring or support services may be offered, or answer other questions about the situation. The judge and attorneys in the case did not return calls.
The reunification would follow after the deaths of two of the couple's children within five months. In March 2012, their 407-pound son, Adam, 15, died of a blood clot brought on, in part, by obesity. Then in July, their daughter with cystic fibrosis, Tamara, 14, died from a medication overdose. The community helped pay for both to be buried in the city cemetery that shares a driveway with the Heads' home in Red Boiling Springs, less than a mile from the Kentucky border.
When the deaths eventually came to DCS' attention, the couple's third child, the daughter who is now 13, was placed into a foster home while the family underwent its fourth abuse and neglect investigation since 2002.
The couple insisted they did everything they could for their sick children.
Abuse investigators concluded they were not at fault for Adam's death, but that they responded too slowly on the night Tamara overdosed. They were not criminally charged.
The Heads have been trying to abide by court orders and DCS demands to get their daughter back into their home. They said they underwent IQ tests and passed a home inspection after cleaning the home that authorities had described as full of old food and roaches.
"I'm sure they'll probably come to the home to see if everything is on the up and up," Sherry Head said.
Neither parent has worked in several years and they have not been able to qualify for state disability benefits, leaving them without income. They live rent-free in a home owned by a relative and had long depended on the disability checks their two disabled children had received when they were alive. The surviving daughter does not have health problems other than asthma, they said.
Gerald Papica, Tennessee ombudsman for children and families, said child deaths often make for an uphill battle for families who want to reunite. But he has seen it happen.
Papica said income is often considered in a reunification decision. He offered no theories on whether DCS and the judge had considered it in making the decision, but he said the couple's description of the court's orders match closely with a typical reunification schedule.
The family should expect unannounced home visits and close monitoring.
"If it is successful, it is almost a given that the child would go back home," he said.
DCS records obtained through a public records lawsuit show the couple struggled to care for Adam, who had numerous medical issues. His obesity led a doctor to recommend that the couple nail cupboards closed and chain their refrigerator to stop him from eating.
They also missed doctor appointments for Tamara, who needed special attention for her cystic fibrosis.
About a month after she died, DCS learned of the deaths and began an investigation.
Records show the surviving daughter told authorities that, on the night Tamara died, a four-hour gap passed between when Tamara began vomiting and when the sister - not the adults - called 911. She also told DCS about the Adderall that Tamara took, which the parents had not told rescuers.
The removal of the sibling into foster care angered some in the small community, including Nelda Clements, a second cousin to Derek, who said the couple did their best with the sick children.
"They lost two children, and I don't think they should lose their third one," she said.
Derek's mother, Janice DeVoe, 62, said she ran into paperwork problems with DCS while trying to become the surviving girl's caretaker. She gave up that effort and said she'll try to be closely involved with the family to support the girl.
"I want to be involved like a normal grandmother," she said.
DeVoe worries authorities won't arrange for counseling or other assistance for the family - which Papica said will be crucial for the girl's well-being. "Reading and knowing about this family, they will need some assistance," he said. "If I'm a diligent social worker, I'd round up (community) support as well. That might be going outside the usual role of a social worker, but given the special circumstances of this family, they should be going a step further."