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By Rose Hoban
The stories from the past decade are heartbreaking: a Wake County toddler smothered by his mentally ill mother in 2012, a year-old Cumberland County child who died of blunt force trauma to head in the same year, and dozens of older children who had cases opened and closed in the state’s child welfare system and who eventually committed suicide.
And then there’s Rylan Ott, the toddler who was in foster care and who was returned to his mother despite the objections of a court-appointed guardian.
“Lots of people were [in court] to object to this child going back home with his mother, that they had seen very erratic episodes with her, that she had some mental issues, perhaps some substance abuse issues,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt Airy) during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “But the court sent Rylan back home.”
Two months later, Rylan was dead, drowned in a pond near his mother’s home after he’d wandered away.
“We hear these stories every year. I guarantee, one of us every year from our community brings in a horror story of something that happened in social services,” Stevens said.
All these children’s stories – and more – were part of a hearing at the General Assembly on Tuesday that was, at times, tense and dramatic.
The story of Rylan’s death is one of many collated by Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary), who held up a sheaf of papers containing the list during the course of the meeting.
“I will be happy to share this with anyone who would like to see it,” Barringer said. “This is just a spreadsheet of those deaths, the actual report is about this thick and when you read it, it will bring you to tears.” She indicated the report to be greater than an inch thick that features 120 children who died between the years 2006 to 2014.
Barringer, herself a former foster parent, has been working for several years to improve the foster care system for kids. She helped pass bills to allow for foster children to participate in after-school activities, to stay in foster care longer if they wish, and to get them additional benefits if they do.
But she has said she’s frustrated by the inadequacies in the system, especially in the wake of two scathing reports published in 2016 that found North Carolina failing the child welfare system on multiple fronts. One study, performed by the federal Children’s Bureau, found the state system to be failing – and failing badly – on all 14 standards measured.
And she’s been frustrated by the lapses in the system that allowed deaths like Rylan’s to occur.
“I assumed that someone from [the Department of Social Services] at some point in time was observing the abusive parent with the child prior to trial placement in their home,” said Pamela Reed, who had been the court appointed guardian ad litem for Rylan Ott. “But I was wrong. it’s best practice but it’s not mandated.
“How does that make sense?”
“At least 12 other states have been sued because they do not offer high standard quality services to children and families across their city or their state,” Barringer said. “I do not want North Carolina to have that black eye.”
The Family/ Child Protection & Accountability Act originally would have mandated that counties be consolidated into no more than 30 regions around the state that would share resources, take control of departments of social services from counties and cede it to the state.
But this provision caused considerable heartburn for legislators as they heard from county commissioners and others.
“We’ve had a lot of input from local social service directors, a lot of angst and they’re worried and they’re as committed and dedicated to the folks they serve as Sen. Barringer has her passion,” said Sen. Rick Horner (R-Wilson).
By the time the bill arrived in committee Tuesday, it had been through the Senate Health Care Committee and had been presented in an amended form in the Senate budget. In response to all the input and phone calls from local officials, Barringer had removed the mandatory regionalization from the bill.
Rocky Mount Democrat Sen. Angela Bryant wanted assurances that this would remain the case.
“One of my major issues is regionalization. I cannot literally take in anything else until I get this straight,” Bryant said. “Is there anything in this bill that makes any social services consolidate with anybody else that they don’t want to?”
After Bryant pressed the issue for a third time, Barringer became visibly agitated.
“To even intimate that anyone who’s been involved in this effort has anything other than the best interest of children and families cuts me to my core,” she said. “If all I cared about regionalization I would have regionalization still in this bill, because we could do it.”
Barringer assured her that the changes to the bill were not a “bait and switch.”
“What you may be seeing it was in the original bill,” she said. “We have done a few tweaks as far as technical parts. There is a provision that will allow voluntary collaboration or merger.”
That possibility was raised by Brenda Jackson, who heads social services in Cumberland County and is the president of the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services. She said there could be opportunities for collaboration between counties such as hers and neighboring counties that might need some of her resources.
“I’m an urban county so I have three or four staff full time. Their focus is on foster care licensing. That’s a big part of us being able to bring foster parents in and have the time it takes to place those kids, but a rural county may not be able to afford a full-time person, so could we share resources and have foster parents from in Hoke County, my neighbor, come over and participate and have my worker train them?” Jackson asked the committee. “This legislation allows that flexibility and option for counties to work across each others’ lines to better serve kids in our state.”
In the present bill, Barringer also rolled the so-called Rylan’s Law, which has already passed the House, shepherded by Stevens. That bill would require social service workers to observe a child being returned to their family twice with the parents, each time for an hour, before the child could be placed back home.
Just the beginning
Barringer said that passing the bill will only be the beginning of the transformation of the state’s system.
A working group will first iron out the legal hurdles to recreating the system. The plan created by that system will come back to lawmakers in 2018.
The bill also calls for outside help from national experts who have already been identified and will develop a plan for state supervision and accountability.
“We’re supportive of this bill,” said Susan Perry Manning, from the Department of Health and Human Services. “We believe the bill has the opportunity to both improve the consistency of high quality service delivery across the state, improve data transparency, accountability and local access to that high quality service delivery.”
Manning did note that the effort would require money from the legislature. “This is a fast-tracked and aggressive timeline,” she said.
“We see the differences across the 100 counties,” said Karen McLeod, head of Benchmarks, a child and family advocacy organization. “There’s pretty significant variation about what services look like depending on which county that you’re in.”
McLeod, who has been deeply involved in shaping the bill said she looked forward to getting to work, a sentiment that was echoed by Barringer.
“Now is the time,” Barringer said. “Children deserve a family, not a system. We need to have these services for them.”