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By Rose Hoban
The mental image was shocking: In 2013, sheriffs in Union County found an 11-year-old boy handcuffed to the porch of the home where he was a foster child, a dead chicken hung around his neck. Even more chilling, the boy’s foster mother was a supervisor at the Union County Department of Social Services, the agency charged with protecting him.
Almost three years after Wanda Sue Larson and her partner Dorian Harper were arrested on charges of child abuse of that boy and other children in their care, two reports have found substantial, widespread problems with North Carolina’s child welfare system — the same system that failed that boy.
A federal review of the child welfare system released earlier this year found North Carolina’s system as a whole is failing children across the state.
In a months-long review by the federal Children’s Bureau found the state system to be sub-standard. North Carolina did not meet standards in any of seven outcomes measures, such as children being protected from abuse or neglect; the state did not meet standards in any of seven systemic factors, such as quality assurance and staff training benchmarks and the state only met the national standard in one of seven data points.
A separate audit performed by the governmental contracting firm PCG found inadequate funding, the need for better training of child social workers, lack of adequate state authority to address problems at the local level, high worker caseloads and high staff turnover.
The federal findings could result in a penalty of $1,709,489 for the federal fiscal year which ends in October, unless an improvement plan is put into place and implemented.
“North Carolina’s system of practice is not designed in a way that consistently protects vulnerable children in North Carolina,” read a synopsis of the audits prepared by the North Carolina Association of County Departments of Social Services.
‘Not in substantial conformity’
The federal Child and Family Services Review is designed with high benchmarks for states to meet, and no states actually meet or pass all of those goals. However, few states perform as poorly as North Carolina.
According to a document prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the CFSR is “designed to help States improve safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes for children and families who receive services through state child welfare systems,” with a focus on continual improvement.
In order to keep receiving federal dollars, North Carolina has to develop a program-improvement plan, said Kevin Kelly, who is the section chief for child welfare at the Department of Health and Human Services. “We have at least weekly two hour phone calls with the Children’s Bureau staff since the review began in March 2015. So, we are tightly connected.”
Kelly described the results to lawmakers at a meeting of the House Committee on Children, Youth and Families on June 9. She pointed to a small sample size in the CFSR. Only 105 cases were examined across ten counties, in a process that took one day per case. Fifty-nine of the cases were for kids in foster care; the rest were in-home cases.
In some of the measures, such as the one designated, “Families have enhanced capacity to provide for children’s needs,” only 39 percent of the cases reviewed met the mark. In another measure, “Achieving reunification [with family], guardianship, adoption, or other planned permanent living arrangement,” only 41 percent of the cases met that standard.
“To give you some sense of why its not something you can see as passing or failing is… in order to achieve substantial conformity on the seven outcomes, then 95 percent of the cases must meet all of the items under that outcome,” he said.
When asked if he might have minimized to lawmakers how badly the state did on the review, Kelly said no.
“I tried to be real transparent,” he said. “I think the challenge is to help people understand what child welfare is all about, what it means to do child welfare across the board, with a very broad range of families.”
If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen
But child advocates say the state did perform really poorly. In fact, the state fared worse on this review than it did in a similar assessment in 2007.
“Our concern is that there are serious deficits and problems with North Carolina’s system,” said Michelle Hughes, head of NC Child, an advocacy organization. She said the issues raised in the CFSR need to be proactively addressed. “We did pretty bad.”
One of the biggest problems cited by everyone interviewed for this story was the lack of good data for auditors to see what’s happening with kids.
“[Auditors] literally could not get their hands on the data,” Hughes said, because in many instances, the data doesn’t exist. And if it does exist, it’s on paper.
Two decades into the age of the Internet, most county Departments of Social Services use paper files to keep records about child abuse, neglect and the services they receive.
“We can’t track families from one county to another,” Hughes said. When case workers bring in files about some children, she said, “They’ll bring in boxes of paper that are the records.”
That means as kids move from one foster home to another, from one relative to another and back to parents, the only way to monitor their movements is in a system that doesn’t allow for electronic search or tracking. Some counties have started scanning documents, but they still lack any kind of electronic case management system that sends alerts and reminders.
Hughes said that means it’s harder for social workers to see when kids fall through the cracks.
“We have had folks advocating for better data system for child welfare for over 20 years,” she said.
The state’s NC FAST system, intended to be a method for integrating and tracking all the social services someone might be receiving, has a “module” that’s supposed to track child welfare.
But it’s not supposed to come online until 2019 or later, according to Hughes.
Money can’t solve everything, but…
According to child advocate Karen McLeod, even as the number of children entering the system increases, dollars have been shrinking.
McLeod, who heads Benchmarks, a child and family advocacy organization, said the state actually provides the fewest dollars to the child welfare system, about $191 million last year.
Counties bear the biggest burden of financing the system, she said, and that becomes an sticking point between larger, wealthy counties and smaller, poorer ones.
“The disparity is both in pay for staff as well as in available services and supplement to services,” McLeod explained. “For instance, a kid comes into custody and all he’s got is the clothes on this back. Some counties will give some money to foster families to buy the kid some clothes or toys or whatever, but in other counties they simply don’t have available funds to do those things.”
And the funding disparities go further, to the pay scale offered to county case workers.
“The PCG audit found poorer counties struggle to recruit and retain county DSS staff,” she said. “What happens is poorer counties will train staff up, but once they’re trained, they can go to next county, and see pay increase by five or ten thousand dollars, especially if it’s a rural county outside an urban county.”
The smaller counties pay what they can. Sometimes county commissioners are reluctant to increase the dollars to a DSS that they perceive isn’t doing an adequate job. It can be a vicious cycle, leading to demoralized staff with high caseloads.
When PCG auditors asked county case workers about the size of their caseloads, only about half of them said their caseloads fell into the recommended size of fewer than 10 families. Auditors confirmed these reports during site visits and interviews.
In the two versions of the budget passed by lawmakers recently, House lawmakers add $8.2 million to family preservation and support funds, while the Senate adds $6.9 million. Both chambers fund updates to the child welfare system to address the findings in the federal CFSR, including money for training workers and providing support services.
In the end, said McLeod, the boy with the chicken around his neck may have helped other children in similar positions.
“It was a catalyst to raise awareness at the legislature. There’s a real interest in helping improve services,” she said. “It got child welfare back on people’s radar, creating a place a space to have a real conversation.”