New council will work to improve child welfare system - North Carolina Health News
By Rose Hoban
In the next stage of an ongoing overhaul of North Carolina’s child welfare system, legislators announced the formation Wednesday of an advisory body to bring coordination to the complex arrangements that govern the lives of foster children.
The new Child Well-Being Transformation Council is intended to provide oversight and framework for changes to improve the lot of kids in the foster care system.
The new Children’s Council, as it’s being called, was created last year with the passage of the Child Protection and Accountability Act, also known as Rylan’s Law, which was written in the wake of the tragic death of 3-year-old Rylan Ott, who drowned after being returned to his mother by the Moore County Department of Social Services, despite the mother’s erratic behavior.
“We have so many different agencies and so many groups that are offering critical help to children and families in North Carolina, the challenge is that none of these groups are very effective at coordinating efforts together,” said former Sen. Tamara Barringer, who helped author Rylan’s Law and steer it to passage.
Barringer, who lost her re-election bid in November, nonetheless will serve on the Council as a co-chair, through an appointment made last year, while she was still an elected official.
She said her decade-long experience of being a foster parent gave her a firsthand look at how the system could become dysfunctional, with workers passing problems from one department to another when the problems fall outside their job descriptions.
“It is critical to break down those silos and get agencies to work together,” she said. “However there are often incentives for these groups to be at odds.”
Barringer and Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy) both worked through last year as part of the Social Services Working Group that brought together different players to hash out ways to get social service agencies more oversight and grant them the latitude to try different solutions to their problems.
That group sunsetted in February, to be replaced by the more permanent Children’s Council.
Room for experimentation
Describing a child’s journey through the foster care system illuminates how child welfare organizations can sometimes clash.
For example, a child from a family where parents are abusing opioids might be placed in a foster home; this would be facilitated by a local social services department. Her placement there is paid for by state and county dollars, and the measurement for success is how well the child is doing emotionally.
If the child, traumatized by abuse or neglect and emotionally disturbed, acts out, she would be moved to a therapeutic foster home that’s overseen by a different entity – the local mental health managed care agency. Those therapeutic foster homes cost the mental health agency, and the state, more money than a traditional foster home. So, once the child is stabilized, the goal is to move her back to a “lower” level of care that costs less.
“That movement would then disrupt the stability, oftentimes disrupt the mental health of the child,” Barringer said. “We have a cycle of a child bouncing into therapeutic foster care and then back out, and in and out and finally, they bounce out at 18 because they have not had the stability and services and love and support that they needed.”
She said that one function of the Children’s Council will be to eliminate such siloed thinking and get agencies to work together on more permanent solutions for kids in need.
“There are often incentives for these groups to be at odds, and so one of the things this organization is going to do moving forward is identify what those are and eliminate them,” Barringer said.
Rylan’s Law also created a paid staff position to coordinate the activities of the council. But instead of working within the Department of Health and Human Services, the staffer, Vaughn Crawford, will be part of the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division.
PED is seen by many in and out of the legislature as a neutral body that generates non-biased reports on programs mandated by lawmakers.
“I think there was a lot of thought into how we want to house [this position] at the General Assembly and the question was where do we want to put it in order to be very true to that idea of neutrality,” Crawford said. “[PED] is really a neutral space.”
Crawford said that part of her mandate would be to look across the complicated web of child welfare, social service and mental health systems that play different parts in the lives of foster kids to find ways that they clash and places where they can act together to create better outcomes.
“The interconnectedness of the systems and complexity of these systems is almost overwhelming,” she said. “We must have a place where we can all step back and look at the bigger picture and all of this complexity, not just the small parts and bits and individually.”