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NC lawmakers propose additional scrutiny of DSS operations statewide

State lawmakers are considering a plan to increase scrutiny of North Carolina’s child protective services system after high-profile scandals in Union and other counties.

Part of the plan in the state budget calls for a comprehensive evaluation of how all 100 counties’ child protective services work, at a cost of $700,000. There is no current statewide data on the performance of those services, lawmakers said.

One of the plan’s proponents, state Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, is optimistic the moves will be part of the final budget package being worked out this month by the two chambers. Similar language is in both the Senate and the House versions of the budget, he said.

“Why be in public service if you can’t protect the children?” Tucker asked. “We wanted to take this horrific situation in Union County and turn it into a positive for kids.”

He was referring to an 11-year-old boy found handcuffed to the porch of his Monroe-area home in November with a dead chicken tied around his neck. The boy’s legal guardian, Wanda Larson, was a child protective services supervisor in Union County’s Department of Social Services.

Larson and her longtime boyfriend, Dorian Harper, face a number of felony child abuse charges. Authorities discovered that the couple had served as foster parents for 36 children who were placed with them over the years by Union and Gaston counties and are investigating whether any of the other children were abused.

Tucker also cited problems with DSS in Wilkes County. Children who were removed from a home where they were sexually abused were placed by DSS in another home where they were further abused, according to media reports, and one of their new caretakers had a prior child abuse conviction.

Mecklenburg County has seen its share of issues with its child welfare division as well. In fact, the division had become so dysfunctional that consultants had recommended the rare move of bringing in outside monitors for voluntary oversight, the Observer and news partner Qcitymetro.com reported in 2012.

State plans

In a statement Thursday, state Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Kevin Howell said the agency is looking forward to working with legislators to improve the system.

“Given the recent high-profile cases in a few counties, there is no debate that improvements are needed in child protective services,” he said.

The proposed statewide study of child protective services would review county performance, caseload sizes, funding needs, turnover and oversight, among other areas. The independent review would be due by Jan. 1, 2016.

Another part of the plan includes $750,000 for hiring nine people in the state DSS to improve oversight of child welfare services at the county level. The new workers would monitor and provide technical assistance for the counties.

And $300,000 would go to create a child protective services pilot program to enhance coordination of services and information among county DSS, local law enforcement, the county system and other agencies.

Lawmakers are also concerned about the caseload for child protective services workers. The budget proposals direct $8.3 million of DHHS funds to provide additional child protective services workers for county DSS to help reduce their caseloads.

Richard Matens, executive director of Union County Human Services, which includes DSS, said he welcomed the state’s plans and potential for increased resources.

“Any help we can get, I’m 100 percent for,” Matens said.

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