The charges and counter-charges being thrown around about whos accountable for notable failures by the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services to keep children safe are enough to make your head spin. When everything is sorted out and that should be a priority there is likely to be blame to go around.
But just assessing blame in this situation cannot be the goal. Eleven children in Mecklenburg County have died since 2007 while their families were under DSS supervision or had recent contact with social workers. Thats distressing.
A Sunday Observer story raises serious concerns about whether cuts in the number of social workers and inadequate oversight at DSS has jeopardized the welfare of children in troubled families. Mecklenburg County commissioners, who oversee DSS, must aggressively address these issues and ensure the public that the county is providing adequate protections for its most vulnerable residents.
The problems are emerging in wake of the firing of former DSS Director Mary Wilson, who sent a memo to county officials earlier this year outlining her concerns about the Youth and Family Services division which handles child protective services. A February 2011 state review of DSS had found 23 areas of deficiency in child welfare.
County officials countered in Sundays story that changes Wilson pushed weakened the safeguards for children. She merged some operations and created new divisions. Those changes coupled with staff reductions that came as Mecklenburg County imposed budget cuts last year, a six-month hiring freeze left 14 social worker positions unfilled meant heavier caseloads for the remaining staff.
County officials say they are now trying to hire about a dozen new social workers to fill openings that had been frozen. They should do that with some haste.
But as important, county commissioners and officials should address what child welfare advocates note has been a philosophical shift in dealing with troubled families. The pendulum has shifted so far in keeping families in tact that more risk to childrens safety is being accepted than should be, they say. Risky situations are being allowed without enough oversight.
Oversight, or rather the lack of it, is emerging as a key DSS problem. Mecklenburg County commissioners, unlike in most other N.C. counties, oversee the county DSS and mental health and public health agencies. But their oversight is mostly in words, not in deed. They rarely meet to specifically address DSS issues. Experts say they should. They should get regular reports and monitor trends. If they cant fulfill that oversight function, they should set up a board that can and will.
Some county commissioners say theyre concerned about the turmoil at DSS and about their oversight role. All of them should be. But they should focus most of their concern on this whether the county is adequately protecting abused and neglected children. Thats a big question mark right now. Commissioners should not let this matter drop until they can assure the public those protections are in place.
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