CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mecklenburg Commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham harshly criticized top county administrators Wednesday, saying it is “bizarre” they waited more than four months to begin looking for a new leader for the trouble-plagued Department of Social Services.
Cotham told the Observer that officials have caused confusion and possibly weakened the agency by waiting until last week to start a national search.
“They have already made the wrong choice by not having someone in place,” said Cotham, a Democrat elected in November who once worked as an executive recruiter for major corporations. “People want to know there is leadership. We have gotten a lot of questions about who is running DSS.”
DSS, with about 1,200 workers and a $168 million annual budget, has operated without an executive director since the county fired Mary Wilson in September.
Wilson appealed her termination. An employee panel ruled against Wilson and County Manager Harry Jones upheld the decision on Oct. 30.
A team of DSS senior executives is running the agency. County General Manager Michelle Lancaster is responsible for overseeing them.
“I asked before, why aren’t you bringing someone in? They said they needed time to breathe,” Cotham said. “That is so peculiar. It doesn’t match up to me.”
Cotham said Lancaster has told her that she visits DSS only once every two weeks. Lancaster’s duties also include overseeing the county’s Health Department and criminal justice services.
But Cotham says the situation means “employees don’t know what is going on. It’s very bizarre. To me, it is a lack of leadership.”
On Tuesday, Lancaster sent commissioners an email that said the county has hired Texas-based Waters-Oldani Executive Recruitment to find qualified candidates.
The firm has sent recruiting materials to more than 1,000 social services executives and was “encouraged by the positive response from highly experienced candidates,” the email said.
Lancaster wrote that she wanted to review information about possible candidates later this month “with an aggressive goal of making an offer by the end of April.”
In an interview, Lancaster said officials intentionally delayed the search for a new DSS director because staff “had gone through a significant amount of change and turmoil.”
It’s not the first time the county has encountered problems with hiring a DSS director.
County officials suffered withering criticism over the hiring process when they picked Wilson to lead DSS in 2008.
An attorney who worked in the corporate world, Wilson had no experience running a large social services agency. Some employees said she was unqualified and her inexperience hurt her standing among workers.
Now the county is seeking candidates with extensive social work backgrounds, experience handling large budgets and the ability to foster good working relationships, Lancaster said. The county paid Wilson about $151,000 a year.
But bad publicity has tarnished Mecklenburg DSS’ reputation, making it less likely top-flight job candidates will apply for the director’s job, said Brett Loftis, the former executive director of the Council for Children’s Rights, a Charlotte-based advocacy group.
“It’s really hard to recruit for Mecklenburg DSS because there is so much negative stuff out there,” Loftis said. “They can go to neighboring counties without the headaches and make the same pay.”
The next DSS director will confront major challenges. Multiple reports since 2005 show the agency has struggled to meet federal standards for protecting children from abuse and neglect and meeting their educational and health needs.
A February 2011 state report is littered with egregious examples of mistakes by social workers.
In one case, a family was not seen for two months during an assessment even though an older child had been touching a younger sibling inappropriately.
In another case, a child reported he started drinking at age 9 but there was no substance abuse assessment or treatment.
Last year, the state paid a $1.2 million fine to the federal Administration for Children and Families after cases sampled from Mecklenburg and other counties did not meet performance benchmarks.
Lancaster defended DSS, saying nearly all U.S. social service agencies struggle with the federal audit.
In fiscal year 2012, the county says DSS substantiated claims of abuse and neglect for 1,745 children. After DSS intervened, there was no second report of abuse in 1,692 cases, or about 97 percent.
There were no reports of maltreatment among children in foster care in fiscal year 2012.
“I think that’s pretty good in an extremely complicated business,” Lancaster said.
But those statistics contrast sharply with what Jones said when he fired Wilson in October.
Jones cited a declining performance in the child protection division and “an atmosphere in DSS of distrust, fear, suspicion, intimidation, and uncertainty.”
Since her firing, Wilson has said publicly that DSS is plagued by wasteful spending, a lack of accountability, and failures that put children at risk.
She said she tried to fix the problems, but Jones ignored her concerns and concealed the problems from his bosses, the county commissioners.
Cotham’s criticism of county officials on Wednesday echoes her earlier complaints about a lack of information. She said commissioners have not received enough reports about the DSS director’s search. She said she has not seen a job description for the position.
In January, she and commissioner Bill James said they felt blindsided when the state reassigned the oversight of millions in federal Medicaid dollars from county control to an outside group.
The move would have meant hundreds of county layoffs and $3 million in wasted money, but the state reversed the decision in February.