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Indian Trail mayor claims intimidation by Union DSS

MONROE Indian Trail’s mayor claimed Wednesday he’s the victim of “political intimidation” by Union County’s Division of Social Services, which dropped him from its foster care program after he made critical comments about the agency.

The county denied that DSS is involved with political payback or intimidation.

Mayor Michael Alvarez’s initial comments followed the high-profile November arrest of DSS child protective services supervisor Wanda Larson, and her longtime boyfriend, Dorian Harper, on child abuse and related charges. An 11-year-old boy whom Larson apparently had legal guardianship over was found handcuffed to the couple’s porch with a dead chicken tied around his neck.

Larson was fired by DSS a week after her arrest. The boy, and four other children whom Larson had adopted, were removed from the Monroe-area home and put under the supervision of Davidson County DSS.

Also around that time, Alvarez said, several Indian Trail residents contacted him to see if there was anything he could do about the situation at DSS. He called a weekend press conference, where he demanded that DSS review every case of Larson’s as well as every case that went through DSS since she was hired in 2003.

“One person does not break a system by themselves,” Alvarez told reporters at the time. “When one of them abuses the system, they’ve lost our trust, they’ve wasted our money and they’ve ruined our most valuable resource, which is our children.”

‘They penalize you’

For several years, Alvarez and his wife, Jill, had discussed becoming foster parents to help provide children a safe haven. They also have two children of their own.

They never had concerns about the agency before Larson’s arrest, Alvarez said, and had no qualms about continuing with the process after the arrest.

The couple took 30 hours of mandatory training classes last summer and were awaiting a second home visit when they received a DSS letter Dec. 20 saying they no longer would be able to seek a foster license. The letter cited the mutual selection process involved in licensing, meaning that the applicants and the agency make decisions on proceeding with licensing.

“Due to the public comments made regarding the Division of Social Services, the agency made the decision not to pursue licensing your home, as it would be difficult for us to work in partnership to achieve the permanent plan for children in foster care,” stated the letter from licensing social worker Beth Yow and social work supervisor Kristin Casella.

After he got the letter, Alvarez said, “My reaction was disappointment and anger at using political intimidation to give the perception that if you question them, you won’t get a foster child, you won’t get their assistance.

“If they are intimidating me, what are they doing to the average citizen?” he asked. “If you speak up, they penalize you.”

Richard Matens, executive director of the county Human Services Department, which includes DSS, said the letter speaks for itself, and he cannot comment on specific cases.

But he did say, “DSS does not do political payback or intimidation. ... There is a firm rationale for each decision that is made.”

He said one of the state guidelines for becoming foster parents is the ability to be a partner with the local DSS.

“The idea is (for parents) to work collaboratively with DSS for the welfare of the children,” Matens said. “It’s a mutual partnership.”

Criticizing DSS does not automatically get someone dropped from the program, he added. But from the start, applicants are told they are involved in a mutual selection process, Matens said, and that foster home licensing is a privilege, not a right.

There is no appeals process if the agency decides not to pursue licensing a family.

Seeking more foster parents

The county is always looking for more foster parents, Matens said, and actively recruits around the community. Foster parents provide temporary homes for children who are placed in care because of abuse, neglect or dependency.

On its website, the county said there is an urgent need for homes for minority children, children with special emotional needs and older children.

Alvarez said he and his wife were open to fostering any type of child.

A six-person committee of DSS social workers and licensed clinical social workers determine whether someone can get a license. If the local group gives its approval, the case goes to the state for final authorization.

The entire licensing process can typically take four to eight months.

There are 42 licensed foster homes in the county, officials said, and 21 people are in the process of seeking a license. Some 70 children are in foster care now.

Alvarez said he wished that he and his wife had been able to continue with the licensing process, especially given the need for such homes.

“I don’t want to be part of the problem,” he said. “I want to help.”

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell
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