Cell phone cited in child snatching – The Union Leader

Gov. Chris Sununu has called for an investigation into how a social worker, reportedly distracted by her phone, let parents snatch away their 2-year-old son during a supervised visit Friday at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester.

“Preliminary reports have been troubling, but I support Commissioner (Jeffrey) Meyers’ effort to conduct a full investigation and look forward to learning the results in a timely manner,” Sununu said Monday.

As the New Hampshire Health and Human Services commissioner probes the case, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas was also calling for answers.

“It’s not acceptable. It needs to be fixed,” Gatsas said. “They tell me it wasn’t a DCYF employee. They tell me it was contracted out to a third party.”

After police issued an Amber Alert on Friday, the child was found safe and sound in Tewksbury, Mass., by city police and returned to the custody of the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families. Tewksbury narcotics police, who were doing a stake-out of a motel, arrested the parents and a third person.

Erika Wallace, 26, and Joshua Wallace, 27, both of Raymond, were arraigned in Lowell District Court in Massachusetts on Monday afternoon. A court clerk said their bail was set at $15,000 cash each. Manchester police said they would still be held on a New Hampshire fugitive warrant if they made bail.

The person arrested with them, Nicolette Russell, was not jailed after her arrest and was not arraigned, the clerk said.

“We’re still investigating her role in this,” said Manchester police Capt. Ryan Grant.

DCYF and contractors

Grant said the social worker was on her mobile phone at the Food Court play area.

“She looked up, and the kid and mom were gone,” Grant said. The father was in the parking lot in a van, which was unusual, he said. Most of the time, the father and mother visited the boy together.

Grant said it would be difficult to say the Wallaces will return to New Hampshire because they face charges in the Bay State.

The social worker is employed by Home Base Collaborative Family Counseling, according to police.

The therapy practice offers numerous services, including DCYF-funded supervised visitation to assist parents in building skills and achieving reunification, its website said.

Karis Callahan, executive co-director for the family counseling organization, would not comment when contacted by phone Monday.

A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services would not comment Monday about how much the DCYF relies on contractors for child supervision or visitation.

“The department is conducting an investigation into the incident, led by Deputy Commissioner Lori Shibinette,” according to the department’s statement Monday.

Lack of visitation center

Parents have struggled with visitation in Manchester since the 2013 killing of Joshua Savyon, 9, at the hands of his father in 2013. The murder-suicide took place at a visitation center operated by the YWCA. The center was closed nine months later.

In past newspaper articles, judges, social workers and divorce lawyers have said a visitation center is needed, and lamented a lack of available funding.

“It’s going to be difficult for anyone to take that liability on,” Gatsas said.

In its statement, Health and Human Services said that the safety of children during supervised visitation is the utmost of importance.

“Over the next ten days, the department will conduct a thorough investigation into the incident which will include interviews and a review of all relevant information. While the investigation is conducted, the department is ensuring that policies and best practices are followed during any supervised visitation. Details of the investigation will be released as appropriate and allowed under privacy statutes,” the department said.

Held in Massachusetts

Both Wallaces were arrested on outstanding warrants in Massachusetts — Erika Wallace for alleged possession of a Class A substance, child endangerment, two counts of unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, obstruction of justice, refusal to identify self, furnishing a false name and Social Security number, larceny under $250, and shoplifting.

Joshua Wallace was wanted in the Bay State for alleged possession of a Class A substance and endangerment of a child, police said.

Massachusetts law identifies heroin, morphine and several other hard drugs as Class A substances.

dtuohy@unionleader.com; Union Leader reporter Mark Hayward contributed to this article.


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