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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

July 27, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Another state is going down the wrong road regarding its child welfare agency (Daily Advance, 7/15/18). This time it’s North Carolina and the wrong road it’s travelling is named “do more with insufficient resources.”

It seems that the legislature passed a bill last year that sets performance standards for the Division of Social Services that’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s appropriate to get nervous when lawmakers start micromanaging services like those provided by DSS. They don’t know what they’re doing and passing a law that’s equally applicable to every DSS unit in every county in the state is presumptively a bad idea. Face it, the law they passed isn’t flexible, but not all counties are alike.

But that’s what the legislature did and now county-level DSS agencies are stuck with it. Now, DSS is tasked with child protection, foster care and adoptions out of foster care, but those are just a few of its jobs. I won’t deal with its requirement to protect the elderly, monitor child support, administer the food stamp program, etc. The legislature mandated performance standards in those areas too, but I’ll just address child welfare, foster care and related topics.

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.

Of course North Carolina’s child welfare agencies are stretched too thin as it is. After all, their failure/inability to deal properly with reports of child abuse or neglect is why the legislature mandated the new standards. But demanding vastly more of agencies that are already unable to meet lower standards isn’t exactly a reliable way of improving matters. As in Texas, Arizona and elsewhere, the new law looks very much like the feigned indignation of lawmakers who know that the only real way to change things is to provide more money with which to hire more caseworkers, lower caseloads and retain experienced personnel, but refuse to do so.

It being a law passed by the state legislature, there’s nothing counties can do about it except protest, and that’s exactly what some of them are doing. Counties are required to sign an agreement saying they’ll abide by the new standards.

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.

Let’s see, standards that “are not reasonable” and that counties won’t “even come close” to meeting. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, not only that, but Pasquotank County commissioners said in writing that the agreement with the state they’re forced to sign is “unconscionable.”

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.

From here, that looks all too obvious. It seems the legislature wanted to consolidate county DSS agencies into fewer regional ones, a move counties opposed. The new standards look like lawmakers’ way of exacting revenge. Will Rogers once compared lawmaking to sausage making because it’s not a good idea to look closely at either. Such is the case in North Carolina.

What will happen when, inevitably, county DSS units don’t come up to the mark?

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.

And then what? Will DHHS miraculously have more money, more caseworkers, more time, fewer cases? Of course not, so what magic bullet does DHHS have that its sub-agency, DSS, doesn’t? None. So what will change? Nothing. They’ll hire the same people to do the same jobs in the same ways. And, since those people can’t get the job done now, they won’t then either.

This is not rocket science. As Texas and Arizona have learned the hard way, protecting children from harm is a hard job that requires a certain level of manpower and funding to be done properly. If North Carolina wants to improve its child protective agency (and I see no indication that it does), it’ll do what Texas and Arizona did – hire more people, pay them more and give them reasonable caseloads.

It’ll come to exactly that in North Carolina at some point in the not-too-distant future. But for now, the legislature has to have its little tantrum, show everyone who’s boss and rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Having done so, perhaps it’ll soon get down to actually addressing the problem of how to adequately protect the state’s kids. Perhaps.

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