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Counties protest new child welfare requirements

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Area counties are protesting a new state law that's setting new standards — some they argue are impossibly high — for providing child welfare and other social services.

In a unanimous vote last week, Pasquotank commissioners agreed to authorize County Manager Sparty Hammett to sign a memorandum of understanding with the N.C. Department of Health of Human Services committing the Pasquotank Department of Social Services to meet performance requirements set out by House Bill 630.

The county was required to approve the agreement even though Pasquotank officials disagree with it, Hammett and DSS Director Melissa Stokely told commissioners. That prompted commissioners to take the unusual step of approving the agreement but also including a “signing statement” protesting its terms — a step officials in Camden and Currituck counties have also taken with their agreements with DHHS.

Stokely told Pasquotank commissioners that “DSS agencies have been very clear to the state, to DHHS, to anybody that will listen, these (new standards) are not reasonable, and we already know there are areas we're not going to meet.”

She continued, “We can't meet (them), because we are dependent on people outside of our control — the court system, others, judges — to meet these mandates.”

Stokely also said her office would need more staff to “even come close” to meeting certain requirements.

The performance requirements apply to almost all departments of social services, including child welfare, child support, child care subsidies, food stamps, and adult protective services. A few of the law’s new benchmarks include:

* DSS agencies will initiate 95 percent of child welfare screening reports within required time frames.

* No more than 9 percent of maltreated children will be found maltreated again after a year.

* County DSS agencies will “provide leadership” for ensuring 41 percent of children in foster care are found permanent homes within a year.

* County DSS agencies process 95 percent of child care subsidies within 30 calendar days of the application.

* County DSS agencies will process timely 95 percent of Food and Nutrition Services applications and recertifications; time limits differ between applications and recertifications.

* When people report adults are being abused or neglected, the county's Adult Protective Services agency will complete 95 percent of evaluations within a month of the report.

The agreement counties are being required to sign also provide that, if a county fails to meet the performance requirements, DHHS may require they enter into performance improvement and corrective action plans. If those plans don't work, DHHS may cut off state and federal funding, and ultimately take over the local DSS office.

The agreement does note DHHS will not start requiring improvement or corrective plans from counties until Jan. 1, 2019.

Pasquotank's signing statement blasts the DHHS agreement as not tailored to the county and even describes it as an “unconscionable contract.” According to the statement, case law defines an unconscionable contract as “so one-sided that the contracting party is denied any opportunity for a meaningful choice.”

Pasquotank’s statement protests the performance requirements on various grounds. Child welfare screenings are sometimes delayed because DSS can't find the children involved, for example. A current address may not be on file, the child may be absent from school, or parents may hide them, it notes.

Regarding foster care, the signing statement notes adoptions typically take longer than a year, and children with mental health needs may be difficult to find lasting homes for, it adds.

The new performance requirements emerged last year as state lawmakers considered forcing the merger of DSS offices, creating regional entities that counties opposed. Notably, lawmakers advocated for regionalization based on federal and state reviews finding widespread, poor performance in counties’ provision of child services.

Pasquotank commissioners appeared to suggest that, under the agreement the county was required to sign, the county’s DSS office is being set up to fail. Commissioner Lloyd Griffin suggested the agreement reflected a “hidden agenda,” while Commissioner Jeff Dixon said it would give “ammunition” to efforts to consolidate DSS offices.

Camden and Currituck counties have had to approve similar agreements with DHHS as well. Officials in both counties have expressed objections similar to those in Pasquotank, their DSS directors said in interviews Friday.

Camden DSS Director Craig Patterson said he wants and expects to be held accountable for providing social services, services often vital for children and other vulnerable people. However, he believes the new benchmarks weren't “thought out completely.” They don't differentiate between large and small DSS offices, he noted.

The Camden DSS has only a handful of social workers stretched across multiple programs, Patterson explained, and, in a small county, it might only take problems with one or two cases to fall below the various 95-percent thresholds that DHHS has set.

Patterson declined to say the agreement Camden signed is setting up the county DSS for failure. Asked about regionalization, he said DHHS' data collection in the coming months might show whether the idea has merit.

Currituck DSS Director Samantha Hurd said the DHHS agreement’s requirements rely strictly on data collection, not field evaluations. DHHS should consider the level of effort and diligence that goes into difficult or delayed cases, she said.

Hurd also said the most concerning new requirements involve child services. Similar to Pasquotank, she said factors outside DSS' control can delay cases. It's also “unrealistic” to expect adoptions to happen in a year, she said.

While Hurd said her office performs well, she also said she’s concerned about the potential for loss of funding. She said DSS offices will better know what to expect once DHHS starts data collection next month.

Asked about the counties' concerns about the agreements required by HB 630, DHHS spokesman Cobey Culton said DHHS had sought feedback from all the state's DSS directors and county managers.

“The department is committed to working with the counties going forward to make meaningful improvements in client-centered service delivery, accountability and transparency – and ultimately to improve the health, safety, self-sufficiency and well-being of North Carolinians,” he said in an email.

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