WILKESBORO — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released a six-page evaluation report shedding light on major deficiencies within the Wilkes County Department of Social Services (WCDSS).
The report’s findings triggered the calling of an emergency session by the Wilkes County Department of Social Services Board of Directors who will meet on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the state report.
The investigation began after state DHHS officials learned through a news story first reported by The Elkin Tribune on Feb. 19 that kids from Wilkes County had been placed in the home of a convicted child abuser. It is a case in which Wilkes County social workers removed two young girls from one abusive home, then placed them in a home where they were allegedly sexually abused again. It is unknown if WCDSS conducted criminal background checks of those associated with the case.
The state report stated that after DHHS was made aware of the case on Feb. 19, “The NCDSS staff reviewed the entire case record of the foster children noted above. As a result of this assessment, the NCDSS developed a plan to conduct a broader review of child protective services cases and the management of those cases.”
“DHHS staff conducted a thorough review of the Wilkes County Child Welfare Program, focusing on child protective services, and we identified several areas needing improvement and deficiencies that must be addressed. DHHS takes the safety and well-being of every child very seriously, and we will provide the technical assistance necessary to ensure that the Wilkes County Child Welfare Program is strengthened,” said Wayne Black, director of DHHS Division of Social Services in a statement Tuesday.
According to the DHHS evaluation report, North Carolina Division of Social Services (NCDSS) staffers reviewed a sample of 28 cases in March and found problems involving leadership, oversight, and record-keeping, of which 20 cases advanced for further review. In relation to background checks, the report indicated that criminal background checks were completed in 35.3 percent of the assessed cases.
“That’s a low number for criminal background checks,” said Kevin Kelly, section chief of child welfare for the state DHHS. “Our goal is to have 100 percent for these cases.”
The evaluation concentrated on six key areas — Agency Structure and Administration, Case Documentation, Quality Assurance, Child Protective Services Intake, Child Protective Services Assessments, and Child Protective Services In Home Services.
In the Child Protective Services Assessments section, the report said the director of a county social services agency is charged with conducting a prompt and thorough assessment of the allegations in accordance with General Statute § 7B-302 when reports of suspected child abuse, neglect or dependency are received. “When selecting a case sample for review, the NCDSS selected CPS assessment cases that exceeded policy guidelines to determine the source of delays in decision making,” said the report.
The report said assessment cases were open for long periods of time with no contacts and no documentation of the reason for no contact. According to the report, there was little documentation of supervisory oversight other then a signature at time of closure. In some cases, the report indicated when there was documentation of supervisory direction, it was not followed by the social worker and the supervisor had no means to know the task was not completed.
The report said the most significant contributor to unreasonable delays in case decisions identified by the reviewers appeared to be a lack of supervisor time and oversight.
“Ongoing visits and contacts with families to assure safety of the children throughout the assessment process was sufficient in only 11.8 percent of the assessments,” said the report.
“Criminal checks on all adults in the home were completed in 35.3 percent of the assessments,” according to the report.
In the Agency Structure and Administration section, the report said Wilkes County DSS had a 39.29 percent vacancy rate among child welfare social workers compared to 22.49 percent for North Carolina.
The report said the WCDSS is out of compliance with supervisor to social worker ratio of one supervisor to five social workers. Two CPS supervisors are responsible for supervising 11 and eight positions, respectively. Two foster care supervisors supervise six and eight positions, respectively. The report said,”The large number of open CPS assessment cases open for unreasonably lengthy periods of time is in large part due to the lack of leadership, supervision and timely assessments ending with accurate and well informed case decisions.”
The report further indicated there is no clear coordination of activities between the supervisors resulting in diverse decision making and disagreements on the management of cases. It added the WCDSS has an automated system for tracking cases, but it is not used since information is not kept up to date by social workers or supervisors. This results in incomplete and inaccurate tracking data that is unreliable for decision making, according to the report.
In the Case Documentation section, the report indicated NCDSS reviewers had difficulty finding critical information in records due, in part, to illegible handwritten notes. “There was insufficient documentation in most records to determine if decisions regarding child safety and well being were accurate,” said the report. “The WCDSS must develop and implement a plan for holding social workers and supervisors accountable for maintaining accurate and timely documentation in case records. This plan must begin with supervisors ceasing to sign off on incomplete records.”
In Child Protective Services Intake section, the report said that while Structured CPS Intake Report was found in all records, it was not complete.
In the Child Protective Services In Home Services section, the report indicated there was a significant lack of documentation or organization in the records, there was no documentation of services to the family, there were no current case plans as required by state and federal policy, and there was no documented engagement of the family in the case planning and development process.
According to the report, “The lack of case plans to clearly chart case activities and goals resulted in social workers spending more time reacting to crises rather than successfully resolving risks to children and preventing foster care placements.”
In the Quality Assurance section, the report indicated the WCDSS does not have a systematic means for reviewing records, data, or outcomes by supervisors or management. The report indicated the lack of any visible review of case records has resulted in many poorly documented cases and cases without any activity for periods of time.
In a prepared statement, Director Bill Sebastian and Wilkes DSS attempted to distance themselves from the report’s statement that the original case triggering the investigation had any mishandling by Wilkes staff.
In the statement, Wilkes officials said, “Despite these problems, however, it is important to note that the findings of the review are not an indication of the overall efficiency and compliance of the child welfare units. Nothing in the report indicates problems with the operation of the entire child welfare program, including foster care and child protective services. Nor does anything in the report indicate that any problems were found with the way that the department handled the case involving the children who have been the subject of so much recent media coverage.”
But Kevin Kelly, section chief of child welfare for the state DHHS, said in a phone interview Tuesday, that the state “does not concur” with Wilkes DSS’s statement that no “problems were found with the way that the department handled the case involving the children” first brought to light in an article by The Elkin Tribune.
According to the state report, WCDSS must develop a plan to address the identified issues. A follow up review will occur within six months to determine progress toward resolution of the report findings.
Anthony Gonzalez may be reached at 336-366-4440 or on Twitter @newsgonz.