October 1, 2002
Board Committee to Discuss Child Protective Services
Charlotte, NC--The Community Health and Safety Committee of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners is set to discuss the key program that protects children from abuse and neglect. The Committee will meet at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, October 1 in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Room CH14, for an update on the specifics of investigations and ultimate dispositions of reported instances of abuse and neglect.
The issue of child abuse and neglect has been the subject of some discussion at recent Board meetings, resulting in a desire for commissioners to learn more about how child protective services is administered by the County's Youth and Family Services Division of the Department of Social Services (DSS).
Mr. Alan Beal, Mr. Jay Gell and Mr. Jack Stratton have used the public appearance portion of Board meetings to make unspecific and unsubstantiated allegations against DSS and some of its employees. At the instruction of County Manager Harry Jones, County staff from the Internal Audit Department, Finance Department and Human Resources Department have met with Mr. Beal and Gell to request specific information on the allegations.
"We take such allegations seriously and have made it clear that if anyone has specific information, the County will investigate the allegations," said Jones. "However, after repeated requests for specific information, to date no one has provided such information."
Mr. Stratton appeared at the September 17, Board meeting and stated that he has information with respect to 40 County employees that he would give to County officials by September 20. However, Mr. Stratton has not provided this information to the County, but continues to make public accusations.
While the Board Committee will discuss how reports of child abuse and neglect are handled and adjudicated, North Carolina law prohibits the disclosure of specific child protective services information and information contained in individual juvenile court case records. Therefore, County staff or elected officials cannot disclose to the public the particulars of any case or even the existence of any particular child protective services case. These laws exist to protect the children involved. Therefore, the Board Committee will not discuss the Stratton case. Instead, the Board Committee will discuss how cases are handled and what protocol exists to provide review and oversight.
North Carolina is a State supervised and County administered Social Services program. Counties in North Carolina do not have unilateral authority to remove children from their parents and their homes and keep them indefinitely. When DSS receives a referral, which may come from a citizen, a relative, a physician, school personnel, or anyone else, it determines how the case should be handled. Sometimes cases are screened out for lack of substantiated cause. Sometimes DSS's involvement is to provide services to the family. On other occasions, DSS develops a supervised treatment plan for the family to follow. In some cases, DSS files petitions with the court for a judgment about the best interest of the child in question.
Last year Mecklenburg County DSS received 8,232 referrals and filed petitions in 461 cases. Not all of these petitions required the removal of the children from their parents and homes. Removal takes place when the juvenile court judge finds conditions legally justify the removal to protect children from harm.
When children are removed from their home, they are placed with relatives, if appropriate, or in foster care if no suitable relative is available. Within seven days of DSS taking custody of the children, the court reviews the matter to determine whether the children should remain in the custody of DSS or whether they should be returned or otherwise placed. If the child is to remain in DSS custody as ordered by the court, further court proceedings take place.
In juvenile court proceedings, DSS is represented by legal counsel as are the parents or custodians of the children. Additionally, a guardian ad litem is appointed by the court for each child, and the guardian ad litem is represented by counsel. The role of the guardian ad litem is to represent the interests of the child. Advocacy groups, such as the Council for Children, often become involved in cases, and they also are represented by counsel. If the school system is involved, it is represented by counsel. Many times medical and mental health professionals are present in court to offer sworn testimony.
All cases involving children in the custody of DSS are reviewed on a regular basis by the court. In addition, some cases are mediated through a court-supervised mediation program. It is the court, not DSS, that decides the ultimate outcome of the case based upon sworn testimony of witnesses and other evidence presented to the court in hearings with all parties and their attorneys present.