A report on how well Mecklenburg County serves its most vulnerable residents, abused and neglected children, found both hits and some painful misses.
The county last year commissioned Eckerd Kids, a Florida-based human services nonprofit, to assess the Department of Social Service’s child welfare work. The county has custody of 550 to 600 children at any given time.
“By and large, there’s a lot of great work being done,” study lead Ron Zychowski told county commissioners Tuesday night.
The seven-month study praised DSS for the few children who return to foster care after finding permanent homes, timely adoptions and the absence of abuse among foster children.
But Eckerd found problems with children finding long-lasting new relationships, or being adopted, after being removed from their homes. The percentage finding “permanency” within 12 months is among the lowest in the nation, Zychowski said.
To receive federal money, social service agencies have to comply with seven performance measures including timely permanency and placement stability for children. Mecklenburg didn’t hit federal benchmarks for three of the seven measures in 2015, Eckerd said.
For years before DSS director Peggy Eagan’s appointment in 2013, reports showed DSS struggling to meet federal standards for protecting and providing for children. A 2011 state report cited nearly two dozen areas of deficiencies. Director Mary Wilson was fired in 2012.
The Eckerd study was DSS’ first chance to take a holistic view of its child welfare work, Eagan said after Tuesday’s meeting.
“The important thing is administrative changes,” she said of the report’s recommendations. “I hope what people heard was that the service is solid.”
District 1 commissioner Jim Puckett asked his colleagues to remember at budget time that abused kids have no political power. “We’re kind of the point of the sword on this,” he said.
County manager Dena Diorio said expanded use of data analytics will play a key part in implementing the study’s recommendations.
For now, Mecklenburg doesn’t gather enough data to effectively monitor and improve the child welfare system, the study found. Data is scattered, lacks detail and focuses more on process and administrative measure than on outcomes, it said.
DSS’ Youth and Family Services Division got a 13 percent boost in budget and staffing this fiscal year, to 419 employees, in part to invest more on child placements. Some units within the division still need more staff, Eckerd said.
A chronic problem in helping children find permanent homes is turnover among social workers, with many leaving a profession that is emotionally draining. Statewide surveys put the turnover rate at 32 percent to 44 percent a year.