Q: What oversight and/or review, if any, has been made of DSS’ handling of the Stratton case?
A: There have been two independent reviews of DSS’ handling of the Stratton case and both reviews state that DSS followed all law, policy and procedures in its handling of this case. The first review was conducted by the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, responding to allegations of corruption and other criminal behavior. The Attorney General’s Office reported that there is no evidence to even suggest the need for an investigation of corruption or criminal behavior. The second review was conducted by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates child protective services for all 100 North Carolina counties. This report also states that the Mecklenburg DSS followed all policy, procedures and law in its handling of the Stratton case.
In addition DSS does not operate in a vacuum in these cases. When a case is in the judicial system, there are other agencies involved in the case and in the decision making process. If the other participants have concerns, they can bring it to the court’s attention.
Q. Who has oversight of the child protective services process and of DSS?
A: North Carolina is a state-supervised and county-administered social services program. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Division of Social Services has state oversight, which includes reviews that are conducted on a regular basis. Federal audits are also conducted. Cases involving children in the custody of DSS are reviewed on a regular basis by the court.
Q. What is the role of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in child protective services?
A: The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is also the county's Social Services Board. As such, the Board has general statutory authority under G.S. 108A-9 "to consult with the director of social services about problems relating to his office, and to assist him in planning a budget for the county department of social services."
Also, under G.S. 108A-11, the BOCC/Social Services Board has the right to inspect and examine any record on file in the office of the director relating in any manner to applications for and provisions of public assistance and social services authorized by Chapter 108.
The outcome of child protective services cases falls under the jurisdiction of the courts and not under the legislative jurisdiction of a board of county commissioners, a local social services board, or the State Division of Social Services.
Q: The Board of Social Services is the local entity responsible for overseeing the Department of Social Services. What training do the members of the Board of Social Services receive?
A: Training is available through the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill. However, no specific training is required to serve as the Board of Social Services or the Board of County Commissioners. As best as can be determined, none of the members of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners have participated in the training for members of the Board of Social Services. The County Manager is contacting the Institute of Government to arrange training opportunities for the Mecklenburg Board.
Q: What methods do commissioners have to watch over the DSS?
A: There are several methods. First, the Board of County Commissioners has the authority to also serve in the role of the Board of Social Services. For matters of practicality, the Board exercises this role during its regular Board meetings and public policy workshops, where it is provided information and updates on the operation of the Department of Social Services and asked by staff to provide direction. The Board also reviews the DSS budget each year and determines the appropriate funding for the Department. The Board has four subcommittees, three of which have applicability in addressing the operations of the Department. The Board also has appointed a citizen advisory committee called the Human Services Council to provide the Board with citizen input into the workings of the Department. A subcommittee of the Council is the Social Services Committee, which is focused specifically on providing citizen oversight into the needs of the community in this area and the Department’s operations in addressing these needs. The Human Services Council provides update and recommendations to the Board at various times during the year.
Q: Why did some of the commissioners say they did not know they were responsible for DSS oversight?
A: Because the Board of County Commissioners also serves in the role of the Board of Social Services, it has not met specifically as the Board of Social Services (outside of the Board’s regular meeting) to provide the oversight and direction for the Department of Social Services. Therefore, it may not have been clearly communicated from staff to the Board that updates it was receiving and actions it was requested to make were being done so as the Board of Commissioners acting as the Board of Social Services.
Q: Why did Mr. Helms, as chairman of the commission, appear to be hiding something by not openly answering questions about how and why DSS acted as they did?
A: It is not clear to what specifically this question refers. However, state law prohibits the County from revealing any information about individual child protective cases. As a result of this inability to provide information, it can appear that information is being withheld for other reasons.
Q: There appears to be wrongdoing on the part of DSS. Why does the County Commission not want to clear up the public perception of this?
A: The Board of County Commissioners and the County Manager are extremely interested in having a Department of Social Services that operates effectively and efficiently and in accordance with policy, procedures and law. The Board and County Manager also want to ensure the public has confidence in the operation of County government including DSS. It is for this reason that these questions and answers are being provided, to clear up any misconceptions and misinformation.
It should be noted that the N.C. Attorney’s General’s Office and the N.C. Department of Social Services concluded in independent investigations that there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the Department of Social Services in its handling of the Stratton case.
This does not mean that all cases are always handled and documented in a perfect manner. This is why cases are regularly reviewed by the state and other agencies to identify areas needing improvement. For each review, the County DSS develops an action plan to address those areas needing improvement.
Q: Why does the commission let Mr. Helms speak for all of them? Mr. Helms is the only one I have heard from.
A: Every member of the Board of County Commissioners has publicly commented on this issue, most recently at the televised November 6 meeting of the Board. Mr. Helms has served as chairman of the Board and is often asked by members of the news media to speak on issues related to the County.
Q: Based on national averages, DSS’ 11% rate of putting families back together says they are a failure at what they are supposed to be doing.
A: The statistic cited above is incorrect. From July 1996 to the present, the reunification rate for Mecklenburg County is 25%. This is lower than the state average of 36% but consistent with the only other county in North Carolina, Wake County, that is close to the size of Mecklenburg. Wake County’s has a 27% reunification rate during this same time.
While such comparisons are useful on one level, to fully measure reunification, like comparisons must be made. For example, for what reasons were petitions filed in other counties? Were the circumstances more or less severe than in Mecklenburg County? What were the allegations made regarding child abuse, neglect and/or dependency in these other counties that might have necessitated removal. More or less cases may have been petitioned on dependency rather than abuse or neglect. The types of cases often have a strong correlation to the rate of reunification. Cases dealing with dependency often have higher reunification rates than those where there were allegations of abuse or neglect. Finally, reunification only can occur when a judge makes this determination, not the DSS agency.
Q: Please explain the numbers behind the survey in the Charlotte Observer where Mecklenburg County has and keeps more children in DSS custody than other counties of comparable size and in the surrounding area.
A: Please see the answer to the above question.
Q: Is there a safeguard in place to make sure that DSS does what "should be" done - not necessarily what "could be" done?
A: There are various reviews of DSS operations, including citizen and community involvement. The Council for Children, a non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of children in this community, is an active advocate for children and very involved in monitoring child protective cases. The State Department of Social Services conducts quarterly reviews of child protective cases in Mecklenburg County. The Social Services Committee of the Human Services Council, a citizen advisory committee to the Board of County Commissioners, is responsible for making recommendations to the Board regarding the social service needs in the community and the ability of DSS to meet those needs.
With regard to legal safeguards, DSS cannot act unilaterally. All decisions regarding child custody must be made in a court of law by a judge with all involved parties participating with equal standing and with legal counsel.
Q: An objective third party should monitor DSS. We have foxes guarding the hen house very plainly and some of the foxes aren't even aware they are in position to guard. There is even disagreement between commission members as to who knows what about their role and DSS.
A: Child protective services is one of the most highly regulated public services in North Carolina and in Mecklenburg County. Please see the response above for details on some of the regulation and oversight.
Q: I simply refuse to believe this is the one and only first time ever time anyone has questioned or been wronged by this agency. One only need listen to the radio and read letters to editors to realize there are legion, literally scores of people with horror stories of what DSS has done. Mr. Stratton seems to be the only one to "go public" so to speak.
A: When the courts decide to remove a child from their home and when the courts decide to revoke parental rights, it is a difficult time for all parties concerned. As a result, it is not unexpected that parents would be angry and upset with the court’s decision. However, most people who believe injustice was done take their case through the legal channels of appeal. Because the County is prohibited by state law from revealing information about individual child protective cases, the news media are only able to present, at best, incomplete information about any particular case. Often, individuals make erroneous assumptions based on that inaccurate information. This is why cases are tried in a court of law rather than in the news media.
Q: We have checks and balances and investigations in to other areas - like the police force and others - why is DSS given this "bulletproof" vest?
A: As mentioned above, there are numerous checks and balances in place.
Q: What do we, the public, have to do to get the lock off of this and have a full investigation and revamping of DSS?
A: Since it is state law that prohibits the release of specific information about individual child protective cases, the law would need to be changed for the public to have full information about any particular case. The laws are there to protect the children, you or any other citizen who might have a report made against them or a family member. DSS is prohibited from revealing your or a family member’s confidential information.
With regard to revamping DSS and child protective services, changes would need to be made at the state level regarding the criteria established that defines child abuse, neglect and dependency, and the policy and procedures that are prescribed by the state for counties to follow in investigating reports of abuse, neglect and/or dependency and the case management of cases. Child protective services is a state-mandated, county-administered service. Administrative rules are developed at the state level and apply to all 100 counties in North Carolina.
Regarding an investigation of DSS with respect to the Stratton case, two independent investigations have been conducted which have exonerated DSS. One was conducted by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office and the other conducted by the N.C. Department of Social Services.
The Board of County Commissioners at any time could call for an investigation or study or other evaluation of DSS.
Q: What good is the Board’s oversight of DSS? Families are being abused by the system, DSS has seemingly unlimited power to break up families and nothing is done. DSS workers can make unsubstantiated claims before a judge, and the children can be taken from the home on their word only. No true and accurate supporting documentation needed! No DSS workers are held responsible for false reports.
A: DSS does not have unlimited power in investigating child abuse, neglect and dependency. Its role is highly prescriptive and regulated by the state of North Carolina and requires extensive documentation and substantiation of facts. DSS cannot arbitrarily or unilaterally remove a child from the home unless it is an extreme emergency.
All decisions about custody are made by a judge after hearing evidence and testimony provide by all parties in a court of law. All parties are represented by legal counsel and have an opportunity to present their case. Any DSS worker found to have purposely falsified a report would be severely disciplined, including termination and could be sanctioned by the court.
Q: Do the Mecklenburg County Commissioners believe they know better than the PEOPLE as to what is best for them and that many of these questions that the PEOPLE are asking, be it those about the DSS/YFS or Baseball etc. etc., should not be asked for WE THE PEOPLE should just take what ever laying down because we are stupid and should let the B.O.C.C., or excuse me, the DSS/YFS (or any other alphabetical soup agency) take care of us poor down trodden PEOPLE or should I say SHEEPLE?
A: The residents of Mecklenburg County have every right to ask questions about the operation of County government and to expect their elected Board to heed the concerns of residents. Providing this online forum for questions and answers is one way the Board has attempted to provide a mean to hear the questions and concerns people have and attempt to respond to those questions and concerns.
Q: Who has the right to implement either a Blue Ribbon Committee and or a Grand Jury to look into allegations of wrong doing within a Government agency and or Commission?
A: The Board of County Commissioners can convene a Blue Ribbon Committee or other similar task force. Unlike in California, where a Grand Jury often serves the same purpose as a Blue Ribbon Committee, in North Carolina a Grand Jury is used to determine whether a criminal indictment is warranted. The Board does not have the authority to convene a grand jury; this authority lies within the criminal justice system.
Q: How can anyone find damning proof of wrongdoing when they are not allowed to inspect all the evidence?
A: State law prevents the public from inspecting evidence and information in individual child protective cases. However, various oversight agencies can and do review individual child protective cases to determine whether appropriate policy, procedures and laws were followed.
Q: How is it that we are all supposed to believe what we are told by a government agency and or commission when in fact they all could just be practicing C.Y.A.?
A: The question of trust of government is extremely important because governments are established to serve the needs of the public. Trust is usually earned through consistent behavior. If the government agency or commission consistently behaves in a manner that builds trust, the trust will exist even during times when challenges occur.
This does not mean that governments should be expected to be trusted implicitly. That is where checks and balances exist, to monitor and evaluate the operation of government agencies.
Q: If the system clearly encourages adoptions over reunification due to a federal law, then at the very least shouldn't the oversight Board keep a close eye on the activities of the department?
A: Actually, the child protective system is designed to encourage reunification where the child can be returned to a safe home within a reasonable period of time. In addition, North Carolina law mandates that efforts be made to not allow a child to grow up in foster care. As a result, the federal government does provide financial incentives to encourage counties to exceed adoption goals that have been established for each county.
Adoption only can occur where a child has been cleared for adoption by the courts because reunification was not in the best interest of the child. It is extremely difficult and time consuming to remove a child from a home and ultimately place the child for adoption. It requires extensive evidence and justification and the failure of parents to meet reunifications requirements established by the court. Ultimately, the decision is made by a judge after hearing all the evidence and arguments by all parties involved. The financial incentives provided by the federal government have no bearing on the judge’s decision, since the judge is not affiliated with the Department of Social Services.
Q: Shouldn't the Commission conduct quarterly reviews of the DSS to determine that the percentages of adoptions to children reunified to children that shouldn't have been taken in the first place, actually make sense?
A: There is no statistic for children that shouldn’t have been removed from the home and therefore such a comparison is not possible. The County Commission could conduct quarterly reviews of the outcomes of child protective cases to understand what percentage of cases result in reunification and what percentage of cases result in permanent custody being provided to the County. However, there are no standards established for what percentage is appropriate for Mecklenburg County. Also, the intent is not to manage the child protective services program to meet percentage standards for reunification, but to address each case uniquely based on the circumstances of the case. This is why oversight and reviews conducted are done by evaluating the appropriateness of services provided in random sampling of specific cases.
Q: I heard on the radio that the percentage of children of whom it was determined should never have been removed from the home was actually more than the percentage of children reunified with their parents. I believe it was around 25% to 11%.
A: There is no statistic on the percentage of children for whom it was determined should never have been removed from the home. Statistics are kept for those cases where children are reunified with their parents. Since 1996 to present, the reunification percentage in Mecklenburg County is 25%.
Q: Who is responsible for the investigation of DSS abuses?
A: The State of North Carolina has responsibility and authority to review the work of each DSS in North Carolina. This includes conducting regular audits of child protective cases to determine areas of strength and areas needing improvement.
The Board of County Commissioners also serves as an oversight body for the DSS, with the authority to review operations and direct the County Manager to conduct audits or other investigations of alleged abuse.
Allegations of criminal acts also can be investigated by law enforcement agencies such as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, the State Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others.
Q: How do I and to whom do I express outrage over how a case has been handled?
A: If you have a complaint against a DSS/Youth and Family Services (YFS) social worker investigating a child protection report, you should contact the YFS Director, Dannette Smith at 704-336-5929. You also can call the child abuse/neglect hotline at 704-336-CARE (2273). If you have a complaint against a judge who is presiding or has presided over a child protective case, you should contact the North Carolina Bar. If you are a party to a child protective case and you believe the court decision was incorrect, you have the right to file an appeal of that decision based on the validity of that appeal according to law.