MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- State officials may bring extra scrutiny to Mecklenburg County DSS in response to failures to protect children.
The N.C. Division of Social Services is considering conducting inspections more often in Mecklenburg, Director Sherry Bradsher told the Observer.
The state typically reviews the child welfare unit in each county every two years. A 2011 state review in Mecklenburg found nearly two dozen areas of deficiencies and glaring examples of substandard work.
In one case, a court returned a baby to a mother who had previously lost custody of 10 children, but the Department of Social Services had not assessed safety in the home.
“Would it be beneficial for Mecklenburg practices if they were reviewed by us more often? That could help,” Bradsher said. “It is something we are continuing to talk about.”
State officials meet local leaders to discuss their plans when there is a change in DSS leadership, Bradsher said.
Mecklenburg County last month fired DSS Director Mary Wilson after four years on the job. Wilson appealed the termination in a hearing last week.
A county spokesman declined comment.
Bradsher’s statements follow an Observer report detailing a study from consultants that found Mecklenburg’s division for child protection was dysfunctional.
The 2011 report, which has never been released to the public, said Youth and Family Services Director Paul Risk failed to provide “assertive and decisive leadership” and should be removed from his job. Wilson was Risk’s direct supervisor and the report said distrust between them created confusion and divisiveness in the agency.
Consultants recommended the county bring in outside monitors who would help manage child protection for one year and “have the authority to review and approve all goals and priorities, plans, evaluations of progress, systemic and organizational changes.”
Bradsher, who was among dozens interviewed for the study, said she does not believe any North Carolina county has used outside monitors to help manage social services.
But she said it is not uncommon for the state to send workers to county agencies when repeated problems arise.
State administrators last ordered employees to give “intensive” help to Mecklenburg six or seven years ago, Bradsher said.
Asked how Mecklenburg County is now performing, Bradsher said large, urban areas often struggle to meet federal standards for child welfare.
“If I compared it to areas in other states, Mecklenburg County is not going to be on the bottom of that list,” Bradsher said.
But Brett Loftis, executive director of the Council for Children’s Rights, a Charlotte child advocacy group, said the county has long had problems protecting children. The issues, he said, predate Wilson’s arrival.
In recent years, Youth and Family Services has lost specialists in areas such as sexual abuse and domestic violence because officials favored a different approach, Loftis said.
The consultants report noted that the number of mental health specialists employed by the division had dwindled from 20 to one.
“That’s fine if you’re Moore County,” Loftis said, alluding to a small county in the center of the state.
An agency servicing a county like Mecklenburg, with nearly 1 million people, needs expertise, Loftis said.
County commissioners contacted by the Observer last week said they had not seen the 2011 consultants’ report. Some said it revealed serious flaws in DSS.
“There is a high level of problems,” commissioner Bill James said. “There are risks to children. Something has to change in the system.”
Mecklenburg County has a unique arrangement in which county commissioners oversee DSS. In nearly every other North Carolina county, a separate board has that authority.
But Mecklenburg commissioners very seldom meet to specifically discuss DSS policy and were unaware of critical reports that have recently become public.
Commissioner Karen Bentley said the board should re-examine its oversight role in light of recent revelations.
“We need a serious dialogue about accountability,” Bentley said.