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Mecklenburg gets new hotline as DSS, child abuse calls exceed those in 6 states

FILE – Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services will open a new child abuse hotline in August 2017. Currently, the county’s “CARE” Line, which fields questions about DSS and reports of child abuse tips, gets more than 15,800 calls a year – more than the volume found in six states. In this photo, DSS is pictured at its building location on Billingsley Road.
FILE – Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services will open a new child abuse hotline in August 2017. Currently, the county’s “CARE” Line, which fields questions about DSS and reports of child abuse tips, gets more than 15,800 calls a year – more than the volume found in six states. In this photo, DSS is pictured at its building location on Billingsley Road. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services plans to roll out a new phone hotline this summer to process reports of possible child abuse and neglect.

It’s one of several major changes local leaders are making in light of outside and internal reviews that show the department has struggled to meet some state and federal standards for child protective services.

The county’s “CARE Line” is a 24-hour hotline operated 365 days a year to take reports of abuse, as well as questions about social services. Separating the child abuse/neglect hotline from other services will help the department streamline its reaction to urgent calls and assist social workers in responding to cases of possible child endangerment, DSS officials say.

Currently, Mecklenburg County – with a more than 1 million population – takes more than 15,800 calls to the CARE Line annually. That’s more than the annual call volume for similar hotlines in six states and the District of Columbia.

DSS plans an awareness campaign to introduce the new hotline. The current CARE line will continue to operate while the new hotline is planned to open in August.

These calls are often the first step in the intake and assessment process for Youth and Family Services in Mecklenburg County DSS. Recently, an internal audit found deficiencies related to some intake and assessment steps. The new child abuse/neglect hotline comes along with other proposed changes at Youth and Family Services.

On Tuesday, county commissioners may approve a budget request from DSS to hire 17 more workers for jobs that relate to protecting vulnerable children and adults. The additional staff for DSS’s Youth and Family Services will include social workers, employees who would focus on improving the department’s policies and procedures, and training and support staff positions. The budget request is for a $305,000 increase over last year’s department budget.

The requested new hires could ultimately help DSS turn around some issues documented in a recent internal audit, which showed social workers have had trouble performing family and home assessments within the 45 days required when abuse or neglect is suspected. The audit report also shows instances of employees not performing background checks quickly enough in DSS’ “intake services,” the office in charge of screening referrals related to suspected abuse or neglect.

Other problems in the audit report include staff not entering names of child abuse offenders into a central state perpetrator registry and some documentation issues that left auditors unable to verify that DSS had promptly notified local prosecutors and police of child abuse or neglect evidence. DSS leaders say they’re tackling each issue cited in the audit report and, in some cases, changes have already been implemented.

Along with scrutinizing its internal operations, Mecklenburg County DSS is also reviewing a recent high-profile child fatality, where police say a 2-year-old boy was killed by his mother’s boyfriend.

DSS records show social workers and doctors investigated reports of child abuse in the boy’s home in the two months before he died from traumatic brain injury. The child, A’dan Blackmon, sustained child abuse injuries so bad that police say he was unable to breathe without a ventilator when he arrived at a Charlotte hospital on June 7.

Murder by child abuse in Mecklenburg County is rare, according to child fatality data.

One 2011 report from the county health department collected nearly 10 years of data to find 27 cases of infants or children died from child abuse. That was out of thousands of reports of possible abuse or neglect in local homes.

And, some research in North Carolina indicates most child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect don’t happen on DSS’ watch.

Researchers from the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy produced a report for North Carolina's Child Fatality Task Force in 2013 that showed most homicide cases in the state involving abused or neglected children hadn't previously been DSS cases. Nationally, researchers found less than half of child fatalities were preceded by DSS or social services involvement.

Anna Douglas: 704-358-5078, @ADouglasNews

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