CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services has struggled in recent years to meet federal standards for protecting children, former DSS Director Mary Wilson wrote in a memo months before she was fired.
Correspondence between Wilson and county officials, obtained through a public records request, shows that Wilson raised serious concerns about the division responsible for abused and neglected children. The failures, she said, exposed the state to millions of dollars in potential penalties.
Her comments came as she was facing scrutiny for her own performance.
County Manager Harry Jones announced four weeks ago that Wilson had been fired. He released few details about what led to her dismissal.
In a February memo, Wilson detailed issues in the Youth and Family Services Division. It is the second-largest DSS department, with 300 employees who handle child protective services, investigations of abuse, and training and licensing for foster homes.
Wilson outlined her past efforts to improve the division, including the performance of Division Director Paul Risk. She attached a copy of a state review from February 2011 that found 23 areas of deficiency in child welfare.
The review details substandard work that included how, in one case, a social worker failed to follow up with medical providers on behalf of a child that had suffered second-degree burns.
Risk on Wednesday referred the Observer’s questions to county spokesman Danny Diehl.
Diehl provided general information about Risk’s employment, including that he was hired by the county in August 1993, and has been in his current position since April 2008.
Wilson, hired in July 2008, wrote in the February memo that she had been concerned with Youth and Family Services, which she oversaw, since 2009. She said “continued decline of Mecklenburg County child welfare has exposed the state to a possible significant penalty of several million dollars.”
Sherry Bradsher, director of the N.C. Division of Social Services, said Wednesday that the state paid a penalty this year of roughly $1 million to the federal Administration for Children and Families for not meeting performance benchmarks.
Bradsher said the penalty was negotiated down from a larger total and resulted from a 2007 federal review. She could not immediately say how much Mecklenburg’s findings contributed to the penalty because that review included other counties.
According to emails obtained in an earlier records request, Wilson had been on a performance improvement plan since 2011. Supervisors were dissatisfied with her work dating back to 2009.
Wilson did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Wilson has appealed her dismissal to the county’s human resources office. Although a three-person employee panel will consider evidence from both sides and make a recommendation, Jones, the county manager, has the final say.
Wilson’s only public comments came last month, when she issued a statement alleging a host of problems at the agency. She said she’d been trying to rectify them but wrote that her “greatest challenge at DSS has been bringing forward the bad news of neglect, practices putting children at risk, wasteful spending, lack of controls to ensure that the taxpayer is protected and the backlash associated with continuing to uncover failure to adhere to policy.”
In the wake of her dismissal, county commissioners said they did not know specifically what led to her departure and that county management had not offered an explanation.
Commissioner Bill James said Wednesday that a county attorney had told commissioners about six weeks before Wilson’s ouster that the Youth and Family Services division head would report to county General Manager Michelle Lancaster instead of Wilson.
Risk actually began reporting to Lancaster – instead of Wilson – beginning March 26. Lancaster on Wednesday called it a “personnel decision,” and did not explain the matter further.
On Wednesday, county Board of Commissioners Chairman Harold Cogdell said he was not aware of leadership issues within Youth and Family Services. He said he did not know any details about why Lancaster had taken over that division months ago.
Foster care issue
The number of Mecklenburg County children in foster care has been on the decline over the last five years, part of a nationwide effort to keep children with parents or relatives rather than send them to live with strangers.
Wilson said in a December story in the Observer that the new approach was working. It kept kids safe and strengthened families, she said.
But some child advocates questioned whether the push to keep children out of foster care left them at risk.
Mecklenburg Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell, who is one of four judges who routinely handle DSS cases, said she could not comment on Wilson’s departure.
But she said Wednesday that she has seen a surge in recent months in the number of petitions filed to put children into DSS custody.
Earlier this year, she said, she would see one or two petition cases per week. Bell said she began seeing about seven or eight cases since the summer.
“I commented on it to Michelle Lancaster and (Mecklenburg Deputy Attorney) Tyrone Wade and they stated they were just doing their jobs,” Bell said.
District Court Judge Louis Trosch also said he has seen an increase in the number of petitions being filed since this summer. “It’s been a topic of discussion,” Trosch said. “But the reason why is less clear.”
State review cites problems
There were several risk and safety areas cited as “needing improvement” in the state review of Mecklenburg County child welfare issues that accompanied Wilson’s memo.
In one case, a teen mother with two babies “was allowed unsupervised visits with family on weekends and there was no assessment of the homes.” The state review cites “episodes of domestic violence between the teen mother and her babies’ father (one involving a gun where the children were present) … Visits are not being made in accordance with risk levels.”
In another case, a court returned a baby to a mother who had previously lost custody of 10 children, but DSS had not assessed safety in the home.
Bradsher did not have specific details about Mecklenburg County’s response to the state review. She said minor issues don’t require follow-up with her office.
But for more significant matters, such as additional staffing or reorganization of a department, “we’re going to ask you to put that in writing and tell us the dates you’ll meet those goals,” Bradsher said.