CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Failures to protect at-risk children are raising new questions about oversight at the troubled Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services.
Mecklenburg has an unusual arrangement in which the county Board of Commissioners has authority over the agency. In nearly all other North Carolina counties, a separate board runs DSS.
But Mecklenburg commissioners rarely meet to specifically discuss DSS issues and remained unaware until recently of a leadership shakeup this year at the agency.
On Friday, some commissioners acknowledged they also did not know about a February 2011 state review that found multiple deficiencies and cited egregious mistakes by the division responsible for abused and neglected children. In one case, the courts returned a baby to a mother who had previously lost custody of 10 children, but DSS had not assessed the home’s safety.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke, who said he learned about the review this week from an Observer reporter, sent an email to County Manager Harry Jones saying he was particularly concerned with one case in which a social worker did not follow up with medical providers about a child who had suffered second-degree burns.
Clarke noted that the state has cited Mecklenburg for “areas needing improvement” in past years, but wrote: “I expected we would be seeing fewer of them noted by the time” of the 2011 report.
Commissioner Bill James emailed county management questioning why commissioners were not alerted to the state report. James said he only learned past deficiencies could expose the county to financial penalties after reading an Observer story earlier this week.
Through a public records request, the newspaper obtained a memo written by former DSS Director Mary Wilson months before she was fired. The memo, which outlined Mecklenburg County’s struggles to meet federal standards for protecting children, said the state could face fines totaling several million dollars.
Wilson, whose firing was announced in September, wrote that Mecklenburg County could be asked to pay a “proportionate share” of the penalties.
The state said Wednesday it paid a penalty of about $1 million to the federal government for not meeting performance benchmarks in a 2007 federal review. Mecklenburg did not have to pay a penalty.
“What other reports are out there … ?” James asked.
Jones did not respond to a request for an interview.
County spokesman Danny Diehl released a statement Friday, saying county officials are “not aware of any audits or reviews that have been withheld from the board.”
To demonstrate their openness, Diehl released a 2006 “Board Bulletin,” a memo regularly sent to commissioners and made available to the public. The document says DSS met six of seven performance standards for protecting children during its biennial state Child and Family Services Review.
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Asked if the county has fixed problems cited in the 2011 state report, Diehl said “anytime we receive a review, we try to address the issue.”
In most North Carolina counties, an independent board oversees DSS. Members set policy and hire and fire the director.
Only Mecklenburg and Wake counties have so-called “consolidated” human services boards, said Todd McGee, a spokesman for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
Since the 1970s, Mecklenburg commissioners have assumed the powers normally reserved for a DSS board of directors. They granted Jones the ability to hire and fire the DSS director and other employees.
State lawmakers prohibited all but large urban counties from creating similar arrangements until they passed a bill earlier this year that allows all 100 counties to do so.
McGee said his group lobbied for the change because all counties should have equal power. Counties, he said, sought reform because some think it is more “efficient” for one consolidated board to oversee DSS, public health and mental health services instead of three.
Denny Garner, a treasurer for the N.C. Association of County Boards of Social Services, said the choice boils to “how much control” commissioners want to assert.
But Mecklenburg officials have provided relatively little direct DSS oversight.
A county attorney told commissioners about six weeks before Wilson’s termination that the Youth and Family Services division leader no longer reported to Wilson.
That change, records show, took place in March. Board members also said at the time they did not receive an explanation when Wilson was fired.
Commissioner James said the board has rarely intervened in cases during his 16-year tenure. He said he could only recall one time where board members met behind closed doors to discuss a case.
“Every time I have brought up (a case), the board didn’t want to discuss it,” James said. “The answer is staff should handle it.”
County Attorney Marvin Bethune said commissioners and Jones have met their legal obligations because they consult with each other when problems arise. And he said commissioners still set policy for the agency.
But commissioners said they are still seeking details about the agency’s struggles protecting children.
“There are a lot of things that are still unknown,” said board Chairman Harold Cogdell, who vaguely recalls being briefed in a public meeting about a child-safety review involving DSS about two years ago, but does not remember any specific cases. “(Wilson) brought up things that should be of concern to this board and this entire community, but I know there are two sides to every story.”