Mecklenburg DSS Director Peggy Eagan stabilizes once-troubled agency

Peggy Eagan knew she’d deal with complicated issues as director of Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services. But never did she think she’d be responsible for unclaimed bodies.

The issue came up during a phone conversation with Medic Executive Director Joe Penner two months into her new job.

“I said, ‘Hmmm, Joe, I didn’t know that was in my job description. I’ll have to check on that,’ ” Eagan said.

She did, and sure enough, burying the unclaimed is a DSS duty – since July 2013, the department has dealt with 56 unclaimed bodies.

In that way and many others, Eagan began her “baptism under fire” 18 months ago when she took over the county’s largest and most complex department with 1,200 employees and a $161.3 million budget.

It was a deeply troubled agency before she moved into her corner office in June 2013. The work is critical: DSS oversees such federal programs as dispensing food stamps and Medicaid benefits, providing services for seniors and adults, and protecting and caring for children.

But for years, the agency was battered by criticism and reports showing DSS had struggled to meet federal standards for protecting and providing for children. A 2011 state report cited nearly two dozen areas of deficiencies.

The problems reached a climax in September 2012 with the high-profile firing of Eagan’s predecessor, Mary Wilson.

When Eagan started nine months later, she’d heard and read about the problems. As head of the nonprofit Children & Family Services Center in Charlotte for 11 years, she’d also witnessed plummeting morale among DSS staffers.

That’s not the department she found.

“I found a staff that was soldiering on in the face of the largest recession in recent memory. Their workload was exponentially increased at a time when there had been a hiring freeze due to the economy,” Eagan, 59, said. “I found division directors who had done what they do every day – address the needs of customers who show up on our doorstep.”

The department, she said, had to deal with a new technology to dispense Medicaid and food stamp benefits called NC FAST that continues to have problems and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act that brought new challenges.

Clients and DSS staffers say Eagan has stabilized the department, elevated flagging morale and sent a message through the ranks that their work is important.

“Peggy has come in and created a gracious space for people to feel good about their work and be proud of their service again,” said Carol Hardison, Crisis Assistance Ministry’s CEO. “She’s the right person for a very difficult job.”

‘Share what you have’

In many ways, Eagan spent her adult working life preparing to run Mecklenburg’s DSS.

Her story began in Bedford in southern Indiana, where she was the oldest of Leroy Lewis and Virginia Eagan’s four children.

She learned to help the needy from her grandmother Ethel Lewis, who raised 10 children of her own and took in children when their parents couldn’t care for them. There was no formal foster care system then, but at her funeral in 1980, Eagan and her siblings counted the children their grandmother had fostered.

They stopped at 23. “My grandmother believed you share what you have,” Eagan said. “I absorbed all that.”

Eagan was the first in her family to go to college. As a freshman at Indiana University, she discovered how to make a living helping others in an introduction to social work class.

“When (the professor) started talking about social work and what social workers did, I knew that this what I was born to do,” she said.

Path to Charlotte

At Indiana, Eagan earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work, working as a hospital social worker for a year between degrees.

She spent the next 16 years running a four-county antipoverty program near Bedford, directing a state-funded agency with clinics for children with special needs, then becoming the first full-time director of Indiana’s statewide Prevent Child Abuse organization – lobbying lawmakers for sound child welfare laws.

In 1996, Child Services Network in Charlotte offered a job running the nonprofit that brought together the city’s child-caring community. She and her then-husband wanted to get out of Indiana’s winters and they headed to Charlotte.

But a year into that job, she left and became director of The Relatives, a shelter for teen runaways. Five years later, she was urged to take over Children & Family Services Center, where she put together a collaboration of 10 nonprofits that help vulnerable low-income families with basic needs.

In 2012, she needed a break and used a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation for a four-month sabbatical, retracing the trail her ancestor, explorer Meriwether Lewis, took with William Clark to explore the Northwest.

Driving toward Indiana in her Nissan Rogue with her 10-pound terrier, Webster, Eagan got a call from Brett Loftis, then-head of Charlotte’s Council for Children’s Rights.

In Charlotte, County Manager Harry Jones had just announced he’d fired Mary Wilson, the DSS director. Later, Jones would say Wilson’s management brought complaints and “an atmosphere in DSS of distrust, fear, suspicion, intimidation and uncertainty.”

Loftis urged Eagan to apply for the job. “I told him I was just starting out on a four-month road trip and the job would probably be filled by the time I got back,” she said.

A relationship builder

When she returned to Charlotte in December, the DSS job was still open.

Since Wilson was fired, assistant County Manager Michelle Lancaster had overseen the five DSS division managers.

“We felt confident the division managers could lead the department,” said Lancaster, who is leaving her job in April.

Meanwhile, Eagan returned to her old job. But in the first few months of 2013, she fielded calls from colleagues encouraging her to look at the DSS job.

“I finally decided – honestly to shut people up – to call Michelle Lancaster,” Eagan said. By then, the county had interviewed six candidates, Lancaster said. Eagan became a late applicant.

In early May, Jones and Lancaster decided to pitch the job to Eagan. “Her background as a social worker and the relationships she had built in the community were very important to us,” Lancaster said.

Then on May 8, turmoil struck again: County commissioners fired Jones, in part because of his lack of DSS oversight. The county was ready to unveil the new DSS leader: Eagan. Interim Manager Bobbie Shields told Lancaster to make sure Eagan didn’t have second thoughts. They met for lunch at Mama Ricotta’s Restaurant the following Sunday.

“She confirmed 100 percent that she wanted the job,” Lancaster said. On May 16, Shields called a news conference to announce Eagan’s hiring, at an annual salary of $158,000.

Has ‘attentive ear’

Eagan started her new job by publicly praising the division managers for their work to brace the department under the constant pressure. She plunged into an inches-thick “owner’s manual” to learn policy.

She learned the department’s many jobs and held focus groups with employees in each division. She rode along with staffers, paying a “well” visit to an elderly man in extended care and investigating four people suspected of defrauding the food stamp program.

Eagan reorganized the department, dismantling a support division that had taken away workers from the other four divisions – Economic Services, Adult Services, Youth and Family Services, and Community Resource – doing front-line work. She sent staffers back to those divisions.

She also had to replace YFS Director Paul Risk, who’d been criticized by an outside report for lacking “assertive and decisive leadership.” Risk had planned to retire, but Eagan asked him to remain until a new director was named. After a national search, a search committee recommended hiring longtime YFS staffer Charles Bradley – a choice lauded by many DSS clients. Bradley took over in December 2013.

She allowed staffers to wear blue jeans on Fridays – and she listened.

“Peggy has a good, attentive ear for everyone, and that has gone a long way of picking up the morale in this department,” said Tammera Nelson, a senior social service manager in DSS’s Youth and Family Services, the agency responsible for protecting and providing care for an average of 700 children in the county’s charge.

“She’s been supportive of expanding our relationships in the community. We’re working closer with the schools and with churches. All that has re-energized the department.”

Community partners have seen the change.

Libby Safrit, executive director of Teen Health Connection, said she saw the impact of the bad publicity before Eagan arrived.

“It’s difficult to be engaged and feel positive about the work you’re doing when it is being negatively looked at,” Safrit said. “Peggy changed all that. She has a wonderful capacity to see and mentor and bring out growth and development in the staff.”

Believe in their work

Not all has gone smoothly during her first 18 months.

At YFS, there’s a backlog of more than 300 cases that need conclusions, and social worker caseloads are above state standards. The county recently announced it plans to hire a consultant to take an objective look at the agency.

One YFS employee recently emailed county commissioners complaining that responsibilities for many workers have increased to resolve the backlogs. She said they work 50- to 60-hour workweeks and now many work weekends. Some, the employee wrote, are contemplating leaving their jobs because of the added strain.

“Change is difficult for folks and being expected to produce more in less time is unpleasant,” Eagan said. “But we have been clear that we see this as a temporary situation. Wish I had a magic wand, but unfortunately some things take time.”

Doug Sea, a Legal Services of Southern Piedmont lawyer who focuses on Medicaid cases, said backlogs in food stamps are “way down,” but Medicaid benefits backlogs continue to be a problem largely because of NC FAST, new technology intended to streamline the state’s delivery of social services. Still, Sea has seen a change and said Eagan “is genuinely concerned about the issues we raise.”

Eagan reported that as of Dec. 15, there were 1,713 pending applications for traditional Medicaid benefits and nearly 5,300 pending applications using new standards under the Affordable Care Act.

In addition to rising morale and building stability, a county moment-in-time “scorecard” that rates department performances shows that DSS during Eagan’s first year saw fewer staffers leaving the department than the three previous years. The scorecard also shows that satisfaction among customers and providers remained high and that Eagan was running the department with a high financial efficiency.

Children under the county’s care (679) rose from fiscal year 2013 (643) and 2012 (576), but was significantly lower from 2010 when there were 895 foster children.

Along with NC FAST and the ACA, other challenges remain for the coming year. They include finding new resources to care for an increasingly older population, helping a task force that begins this month find ways to increase economic mobility for Mecklenburg’s poor, and continuing to increase help for vulnerable families with infants before “they get into the DSS system.”

In 2015, Eagan also expects a third round of federal standards reviews of the state’s social services delivery – with Mecklenburg as one of four counties participating. “We will be ready for the review,” she said. “We hope that we meet the majority of revised standards.”

The hardest part of the job, she said, is worrying about the children DSS is responsible for. When they’re admitted to the hospital, she visits. They keep her up at nights.

But she worries, too, about her staffers and fiercely advocates for them.

“These jobs are some of the most difficult in the community,” Eagan said. “And yet small miracles are performed every day in this organization, and we don’t know when they are coming. Will I tell you that all 1,200 employees are exceptional and never make a mistake? I can’t. But I can tell you that the bulk come here every day because they believe in what they’re doing.”

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