By Taylor Knopf
North Carolina’s foster care system is inadequate at best and a nightmare at its worst. That was the assessment by not just federal regulators last year, but also a private consulting firm which performed a review that found the system severely lacking.
Lawmakers hope to change that with the Child/Family Protection and Accountability Act, which aims to fully reform the state Division of Social Services by 2022.
Senate Bill 594 would establish a “working group” of county commissioners, social services workers from state and county departments, court officials, attorneys and other concerned professionals who would be tasked with re-organizing county social services. This bill would set up no more than 30 regions by 2019, which would replace the current model, where social services are controlled at a county level throughout the state.
“North Carolina is in the midst of a child welfare crisis,” said primary bill sponsor Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary), during a press conference Wednesday at the General Assembly.
Barringer, a former foster parent, explained that North Carolina has seen a 25 percent increase in children entering foster care in the last five years. The system is overwhelmed, she said, and lacks a basic computer system to manage caseloads. She said there’s no consistent model of care, which is delivered by a disjointed system of 100 separate county agencies.
Last year, the federal Children’s Bureau reviewed the state’s system and found that North Carolina’s child welfare system did not meet standards in all seven types of outcomes measured, such as safety from abuse. The state also failed in all of the systems measured, such as how consistently staff were trained.
Earlier this year, the North Carolina State Auditor, Beth Wood, found that county social services across the state struggle to sign up Medicaid recipients in a timely and accurate fashion. After auditing about 2,000 cases in 10 counties across the state, reviewers found that high staff turnover, a steep learning curve for operating state computer systems, and a lack of supervision contributed to problems at county social service agencies.
This new bill calling for statewide foster care reform is supported by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate, and they want to act now. Barringer said she intended to “fast track” the bill.
“How many times do we have to be told we are failing before we will do something?” Barringer asked. “How many more times will children disappear and us not know what’s going on? How many times are we going to accept that children actually die in this state because they are not properly placed and supervised, and we are failing to give them the services they need.
“Children deserve a family, not a system,” Barringer added later. “And the system we have is failing our children.”
Rep. David Lewis (R-Dunn), the powerful House Rules Committee chair said the bill is a priority for the House. He co-sponsored a companion bill in the House of Representatives.
“We intend to focus on the most vulnerable members of our population,” Lewis said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Enough time has gone by and the time to act is now.”
Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) spoke about his own experience as a 15-year-old who lost both his parents and was bounced around to different family members.
Tucker said he would do whatever he could to make a “better life” for foster kids and “more accountability” for the child welfare services.
Barringer described him as “a champion for children” at the legislature.
The 14-page bill is full of instructions for foster care reform and adds features ranging from changes in rules around termination of parental rights, to the creation of a pilot program for foster children who want to learn to drive. Barringer said she talked to kids who aged out of foster care without learning to drive.
“How can you have a job and be a productive member of society that is not a pedestrian society?” Barringer said. “You need to learn to drive. We are going to change that.”
The bill would create a two-year pilot program with $75,000 that would reimburse the costs of getting driver’s licenses and insurance for kids in foster care, on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“This is an absolutely ground-breaking piece of legislation that will change the lives of families and children in this state,” Barringer said.