Positive signs for Meck DSS unit

If you are a child services social worker, your job is by definition difficult.

You decide if an allegation of child maltreatment is true or false. You help decide if a child should be taken from a parent, and when it’s safe for that child to go back.

There’s always the chance that, if you make a mistake, that child could get hurt, or even killed.

That’s what the 258 social workers in the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services’ Youth and Family Services division deal with daily. And we are not giving them the tools they need to do the job.

Mecklenburg social workers handling family intervention cases carry an average of 12.38 cases at any time, when state standards say they should average 10.

At the end of October, the county had a backlog of 313 cases that had dragged on past the 30- or 45-day time frames set for completing investigations. That was better than February, when the backlog was a whopping 638 cases.

The state recently earmarked $1.4 million to hire 27 more social workers here, but the jobs are so tough that annual turnover stands at about 25 percent. (Salaries start around $44,000).

The problems aren’t new. Multiple reports spanning nearly a decade have pinpointed the division’s struggles.

In 2012, when then-County Manager Harry Jones fired his controversial DSS chief Mary Wilson, he cited failures in the child protection division. Wilson, in turn, said that she had only tried to clean up the wasteful spending and child protection failures she inherited.

Thankfully, things seem to have stabilized under Peggy Eagan, a veteran children’s advocate hired last year to lead DSS, and longtime staffer Charles Bradley, appointed by a search committee to lead the child protection division.

Robert McCarter, interim head of the Council for Children’s Rights, told the editorial board that “many of the struggles remain, but there’s a better sense over there among the staff that they have the correct leadership in place and they’re going to try to make strides.”

We are encouraged, too, by the county’s recently announced decision to use the change in leadership as an opportunity to hire an outside consultant to conduct an in-depth review of the child protection unit’s operations, and to bring UNC Charlotte’s School of Social Work in to look for ways to improve staff recruitment and retention.

After all the rancor of the past couple of years surrounding DSS, county commissioners and staff must make sure these inquiries are thorough, and that they lead to action, not just talk.

We’ve seen how high a price children pay when things go wrong. We owe it to them to get it right.