It’s hard for counties to keep child welfare workers from quitting their jobs.
Foster children — and their parents — have trouble getting mental health services.
Caseworkers don’t meet face-to-face as often as they should with parents who want to reunite with their children placed in foster care.
These are some of the critical observations from a consultant’s report delivered to legislators and state and local officials as they work on recommendations for improvements to child welfare and county social services offices.
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A state law passed last year requires a plan for regional supervision of social services programs in the state’s 100 counties by March 2020.
The state Department of Health and Human Services is working on preliminary implementation plans that will to go to state legislators and include how much the changes would cost, said Michael Becketts, DHHS assistant secretary for human services.
A group of legislators, county commissioners, county social service directors, and state officials has made its own recommendations for state regional supervision and cooperation between counties. Its final report is due in February.
The focus on improving social services is coming on the heels of high-profile failures of local child protective services. Rylan’s Law, which required the regional supervision plan, is named after a Moore County toddler in foster care who died after being returned to his mother.
When these plans for improvements land on lawmakers’ desks, a prominent advocate for foster children and a main driver of improved child welfare won’t be in the General Assembly to offer advice. Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Cary Republican, lost her reelection bid in November.
At a meeting of the working group two days after the election, Barringer, who is one of the chairwomen, read a letter from a foster father who said he couldn’t find help for his young foster daughter. “It’s a plea for help,” Barringer said.
Her voice quaked as she finished the letter.
“If we don’t cry for these children, the elderly, the people who are in need, then we’re not worth our salt,” she said. “If we get to the point where this doesn’t affect us, we need to quit, go find something else to do. We need an answer for this foster family.”
The working group last spring developed a set of tasks for regional offices. Helping county offices with consistent interpretation of policies, monitoring their compliance with laws and providing training are among the tasks the working group envisioned.
The Maryland-based consulting firm Center for the Support of Families was hired in March to develop a preliminary plan for changes to North Carolina social services in general and to child welfare specifically.
The report contained several areas of concern:
- There’s variation in the ways counties interpret laws and polices related to reports of suspected child abuse and neglect, and in some cases, social service workers don’t interview children by the required deadlines.
- There’s a shortage of front-line child welfare workers and turnover is high in some those jobs, the report said. Starting salaries are in the low $30,000s in some counties, and their workers leave for comparable jobs in better-paying counties.
- There’s a lack of mental health services available to parents seeking to be reunited with their children. It’s also hard for foster children to get mental health treatment, the report said.
- The state should create a central hotline for child abuse and neglect reports, the consultants recommend, rather than having each county run its own hotline and decide when to take action.