Mecklenburg takes a renewed look at its child protective services

Mecklenburg County is closely examining the performance of Youth and Family Services, the once-beleaguered division of the Department of Social Services responsible for protecting abused and neglected children.

At a time when calls about abused children are up 23 percent since 2009, the county is finding it difficult to recruit and keep social workers and other staffing, creating a backlog of unclosed cases.

In February, the backlog was 638 cases. That is down to 305, and the county is determined to wipe the backlog clean by May 2015 and find a system to prevent it from recurring, said Assistant County Manager Michelle Lancaster, who oversees DSS.

Mecklenburg has enlisted the help of UNC Charlotte’s social work school to find ways to recruit and retain social workers, which is a “national challenge,” said DSS Director Peggy Eagan, who took over the department about 16 months ago.

Since then, longtime YFS Director Paul Risk has retired, and a search committee appointed longtime staffer Charles Bradley to lead the unit. The county also plans to bring in an outside consultant to assess the division’s operation.

It’s not a reaction by the county to any particular problem at Youth and Family Services, Eagan said. “With the change in leadership in both DSS and YFS it is an opportune time to examine all facets of our child protective services,” she said.

Eagan said the unit “sometimes does amazing work,” and other times “acceptable work. Occasionally we miss the mark. It is very hard work with no clear or easy answers, and every action taken is open for criticism by someone. I believe until we improve our practice and become a model for North Carolina ... we should not consider ourselves good enough.”

It’s all about trying to provide the best services possible, Bradley said. “With any organization our size and what we are charged to do, it’s critical that you look at your operation and make necessary changes,” he said.

High-volume work

Two years ago, Youth and Family Services came under fire for failing to pass a federal review that measured how well DSS prevents abuse or neglect and meets children’s health and educational needs. In 2005, a former DSS deputy director told county leaders that the unit wasn’t adequately protecting children from abuse or neglect.

The problems contributed to low staff morale and constant turnover.

That led to the firing of former DSS Director Mary Wilson. And a lack of DSS oversight by longtime County Manager Harry Jones was part of the reason county commissioners fired him in May 2013.

The unit was criticized in June for not aggressively investigating reports of abuse of a 3-year-old boy who was critically injured by his mother and her boyfriend in a Charlotte motel. Some questioned whether Youth and Family Services misjudged the threat to the boy.

DSS officials said the mother was uncooperative and they couldn’t find her.

“Our people do a good job,” said Lancaster, the assistant county manager. “It’s easy to be critical of one case out of a thousand a month. This is hard, emotionally stressful work. It’s 24/7. You don’t leave this work at the door.”

Eagan said Bradley has brought stability to Youth and Family Services.

Yet heavy caseloads for social workers persist because of the rising number of cases and shortage of social workers. The average caseload for social workers investigating family intervention cases is 12.38, which falls above the state standards of 10 cases per social worker. For cases involving children entering foster care or adoption, the average caseload is 13.15.

The division averages about 1,000 calls a month. In October, the division received 1,481 referrals. Of those, 1,020 cases met the criteria for staff to investigate.

“In just one month, you had more than a thousand cases to add to the rest of the overall caseload,” Lancaster said. “This is incredibly high-volume work. It’s one of – if not the most – important things we do as a county. This is real-life stuff, every day.”

Many cases fall short of state standards for the time it takes to complete investigations, Lancaster said. Staff, she said, is good at initiating cases (90 percent meeting state standards), but closing them is more daunting. In maltreatment cases such as physical or sexual abuse, the closure rate is 45 percent; for family assessment cases it’s 48 percent, she said. The goal is to close all cases, whether a child is removed from a family or placed with relatives or a foster family. In some cases, children end up staying with their family.

“This is a more challenging area for staff and an area where we are placing a great amount of emphasis and resources,” she said.

Building momentum

Investigating child abuse and neglect is demanding, emotional work.

At present, the division has 258 social workers, with 31 vacancies. The state recently allocated $1.4 million to the county to hire 27 more social workers.

“It’s one thing to tell the county you can have them, but now you’ve got to recruit them and keep them,” she said. “That’s a problem around the country.”

UNCC faculty is expected to suggest ways to keep social workers once they are hired, including providing assistance to social workers troubled by certain cases, Lancaster said.

“Social workers dealing with child abuse and neglect sometimes go through the trauma themselves,” she said. “They need help working through issues and dealing with the heavy emotions so that they don’t quickly burn out.”

Social workers go through four to six months of training before they begin taking cases. So it is important to keep them beyond the two to three years many social workers stay with the county, Lancaster said.

“It’s important to understand why people do this work and what we can provide to make them stay,” Lancaster said. “You can talk about turnover because it’s an issue. But if you have repeated turnover of multiple folks, it’s just so hard to get momentum. I can’t just go out and hire any social worker and he comes in and hits the ground running.

“It takes time, and it’s a big expense to the county to keep training new social workers.”