North Carolina: ‘Substantial’ progress made by Union County DSS

Richard Matens, executive director of Union County Human Services
Richard Matens, executive director of Union County Human Services jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Union County’s division of social services has made substantial progress in addressing concerns about its operations that the state raised last year, a new report released Monday found.

The report by the N.C. Division of Social Services is the latest state review following the 2013 arrest of a county child protective services supervisor on child abuse charges. An 11-year-old boy under Wanda Sue Larson’s care was found chained to her porch with a dead chicken around his neck.

Larson was soon fired. She and longtime boyfriend Dorian Harper later pleaded guilty in the case.

“We are very pleased with the new report,” said Richard Matens, executive director of the county’s Department of Human services, which includes DSS. “We as an agency basically came around 180 degrees, and while we have room to grow, we are very much on the right track.”

Although the case against Larson involved charges outside of office, the department asked the state to review its operations shortly after her arrest.

At the time, Matens was just several months into his job leading the new Human Services department that combined DSS with several other agencies. Matens also hired a new director for DSS, Rae Alepa. Prior to Alepa, DSS had churned through five leaders in three years.

Matens said the child welfare program was “foundering because of a lack of strong, consistent leadership.” And that contributed to employees being held to inconsistent standards.

“When we came here,” Matens said, “we realized there was a lot of fear and uncertainty about what was expected of people.”

High turnover

In January 2014, the state reviewed DSS operations. It raised a number of concerns, including a lack of reasonable effort to get all information in certain cases and problems with documenting how child abuse cases are initially handled.

Working with the state, the county overhauled its child welfare practices, emphasizing more accountability and collaboration. Among other moves, the agency created the job of quality assurance coordinator to ensure that all state standards are being met, increased the size of the child protective services’ intake unit and strengthened conflict-of-interest rules.

The new state report focused on several areas, including leadership, quality assurance, frontline staff supervision and conflict of interest plans. “Substantial progress has been made” since the last review, the report stated.

But the report found that since November 2013, the child welfare staff had a 31 percent turnover among its 42 social workers and supervisors.

Since last year, eight people in child welfare services were fired by DSS and a top manager was demoted as the agency overhauled its practices. Others left through attrition.

Matens said he knew some people would resist change, and turnover, while improving, is always a concern for such a demanding job.

Other findings

The report also said the county should:

▪ Continue to evaluate workloads and recruitment and retention practices to reduce turnover.

▪ Do more work in documenting conflict of interest issues.

▪ Give more attention to consistency of documentation in certain cases.

▪ Continue to ensure that staff and supervisors receive the appropriate training.

▪ And consider adding more staff to the quality assurance team.

The report is the last that the county expects from the state tied to changes following Larson’s arrest.

“This is an opportunity to close that chapter and begin anew,” Matens said, praising the work of Alepa and the DSS staff. “The public should have a great deal of trust in our decisions.”

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