Internal reports and emails show top Mecklenburg County administrators were warned as far back as 2005 that dysfunction in the child welfare division was endangering children.
But County Manager Harry Jones and other leaders ignored concerns and concealed the problems from county commissioners, former Department of Social Services Director Mary Wilson said in her first interview since she was fired in September.
Wilson told the Observer and its news partner, Qcitymetro.com, that Jones discouraged her from trying to reform Youth and Family Services, the unit of DSS responsible for abused and neglected children.
In one meeting, Jones relayed that Wilsons predecessor, former DSS Director Richard Jake Jacobsen, was not deeply involved with the division, she said.
I was told, You probably dont want to get too close to YFS, Wilson said. And the example was, Jake was not that close. We kind of let them do their thing.
The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners is responsible for DSS oversight, but county management often does not share information with the board, Wilson said.
There is almost a desire not to tell the board of county commissioners too much, she said. They dont ask; we dont volunteer . I dont think we have enough governance, enough oversight and I dont think we have enough community involvement.
Jones did not return phone calls seeking comment.
County General Manager Michelle Lancaster, who oversees DSS and was Wilsons supervisor, declined an interview request. Lancaster emailed prepared statements that do not directly address Wilsons remarks.
She said the county has worked continuously to improve Youth and Family Services. The county managers office has authorized the hiring of nine new social workers, four domestic violence consultants, an after-hours supervisor and business manager.
Nursing and educational staff have been reassigned to the division. County officials previously have said those resources were shifted to other areas under Wilson, weakening the countys ability to protect children.
Some current and former county commissioners said Jones and other top administrators did not regularly update them about child protection, but said managers were transparent when asked questions.
Others said they are upset staff did not disclose results from a 2011 consultants study that recommended Youth and Family Services accept oversight from outside monitors who would review plans and goals for a year. The report, which cost taxpayers up to $75,000, also said that division head Paul Risk should be replaced because he lacked assertive and decisive leadership.
The Observer obtained a copy and published details in October. County officials gave commissioners redacted copies of the study last week.
Outgoing commissioner Jennifer Roberts said the board cannot provide effective oversight without more information. Board members recently voted against giving Jones a pay raise at least in part because of his handling of the Department of Social Services, Roberts said.
She said she doesnt believe administrators intentionally hid DSS problems, but some issues were handled inappropriately.
Documents obtained by the Observer and Qcitymetro.com show Mecklenburg County has struggled to meet federal standards for child protection for much of the last decade.
In November 2005, former DSS Deputy Director Brenda Jackson sent a report to county leaders after the agency failed to pass a Federal Child and Family Review, which measures how well the DSS prevents abuse or neglect and meets childrens health and educational needs.
The agency failed to protect children from abuse or neglect, Jackson wrote. She cited examples, including one case where a 4-year-old shot himself in the face with a gun at his grandmothers house even though the family had been under supervision of social workers.
The problems contributed to low morale, constant staff turnover and complaints from the employees of YFS on a variety of issues, with the major one being dissatisfaction with YFS leadership, Jackson said.
Jackson resigned in 2007. She and another DSS worker filed a lawsuit, claiming they were wrongly forced from their jobs after complaining about racism and incompetence in the agency.
A federal judge dismissed the suit.
Jacksons report echoes problems found in a 2011 state review, which cited nearly two dozen areas of deficiencies.
The state review noted examples of substandard work, including a case where a social worker failed to follow up with medical providers on behalf of a child who suffered second-degree burns.
In another case, the courts returned a baby to a mother who had previously lost custody of 10 children, but DSS had not assessed safety in the home.
Wilson, hired in 2008, attached the report to a memo she sent county officials in February. She warned that the continued decline of Mecklenburg County child welfare has exposed the state to a possible significant penalty of several million dollars.
The state paid a penalty of roughly $1 million to the federal Administration for Children and Families for not meeting performance benchmarks in a 2007 federal review. It is not clear how much Mecklenburgs problems contributed to the fine because the federal audit included other counties.
In her prepared statement, Lancaster said the county is working to improve Youth and Family Services by reviewing recommendations from an outside child fatality prevention team. The division incorporates reforms based on the suggestions, Lancaster said.
Four years ago, commissioners unanimously voted to hire Wilson to reform the agency. An attorney who previously worked in the corporate world, she beat out candidates with social work backgrounds.
Within months, Jones defended Wilson against complaints from some DSS employees who sent anonymous letters to commissioners. DSS needs to be fixed and that is precisely what Ms. Wilson has been asked to do, Jones wrote in an email sent to commissioners Aug. 7, 2008.
Wilson proposed reorganizing Youth and Family Services and replacing Paul Risk as the leader of the unit.
In an email to Lancaster and Human Resources Director Chris Peek dated March 18, 2009, Wilson said many of the complaints she received were from Youth and Family Service workers.
Wilson blamed Risk for the issues, writing that he avoids conflict so he does not interact with staff and this has created a friction that staff do not trust him.
In an interview, Wilson told the Observer that county management never gave her permission to reassign Risk and make other necessary changes.
Risk still retains his job even though a 2011 consultants study recommended the county replace him because he lacked assertive and decisive leadership. The report also said distrust between Wilson and Risk created divisiveness and confusion in the agency.
Some 72 percent of supervisors and 97 percent of social workers said they did not believe that their leaders/managers always or even sometimes worked together as a team, the study said.
The consultants acknowledged that Wilson helped lower the number of children in foster care, among other accomplishments, but said she appears to accept little ownership and personal responsibility for the problems within YFS, even though her position carries with it the most responsibility for making sure that YFS does its work well.
Wilson said she simply tried to make workers more accountable. She said she made county administrators nervous because she repeatedly uncovered mismanagement that stretched back years.
She recalled a meeting with Jones that took place after Wilson helped uncover misspending in the county-run Giving Tree charity that helped needy children.
DSS employee Cindy Brady was sentenced to six months in prison last year after she pleaded guilty to three federal counts of embezzling. Prosecutors estimated that the program lost $120,000, including some $30,000 Brady used to pay off personal credit card debt.
Jones and county commissioners endured criticism because Brady was able to take money from the charity from 2007 to 2009 before she was caught.
I was told, Youve put us under a microscope, Wilson recalled. I took that to mean that that was not a good thing, so I needed to not raise any more issues and not be, perhaps, as vigilant or diligent. Thats what I received from that message.
Wilson received both praise and scorn during her four-year tenure at DSS.
She is credited with forging strong ties with local nonprofits that could assist DSS clients.
Some judges opposed her firing. They say she tried to bring national best practices to Youth and Family Services that helped reunite abused and neglected children with their families.
She was also key to a local effort examining the disproportionate number of African-American children in foster care.
Wilson fought her termination by appealing to an employee appeals panel. She called the termination unjust and unfair.
But Jones fired her after the panel agreed that she was dishonest, did not work well with others and did not show courtesy. Jones also cited the declining effectiveness of Youth and Family Services.
Wilson said she has not decided whether she will file a lawsuit against the county.
She said the firing stemmed at least partly from her working relationship with Risk.
County officials accused her of working around Risk and having another DSS administrator covertly run the child welfare unit, she said.
Wilson denied the allegation, but she said county officials said she was lying.
County commissioners appeared divided about Wilson. Last week, commissioner Dumont Clarke said Jones should have fired her sooner.
Other commissioners have said they believed she was performing well.
I heard good things and I heard bad things, commissioner Roberts said. Everyone had high hopes for her. I dont know why it didnt go so well.
Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Lisa Bell said she worries about the vacuum Wilsons departure from DSS has created. Wilson was responsive to concerns raised by judges, Bell said.
Lancaster, the county general manager overseeing DSS, has important responsibilities outside of DSS, Bell said.
We are in limbo, District Judge Lou Trosch said. Its hard to move forward in that position.
Qcitymetro.com editor Glenn Burkins contributed to this story.