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DSS study's alarming review demands action

October 26, 2012
Charlotte Observer - October 26, 2012

The secret study of Mecklenburg County’s child welfare division, a report Observer and reporters revealed this week, offers two recommendations that the county should take immediately or explain why it won’t.

The consultants’ 2011 alarming assessment of the Department of Social Services’ Youth and Family Services, the child welfare arm, calls for YFS to accept “voluntary oversight” by an external group who would have authority for a year to review and approve goals, priorities and organizational changes. They also recommend that Paul Risk be removed as YFS director and reassigned as the division’s assistant director for planning and evaluation, noting bluntly that “his skill set is not best suited for YFS director.”

If the county rejects these moves, officials have an obligation to explain quickly and fully to the public why. The revelations about the chaotic and dysfunctional child welfare division are shaking this community’s confidence that the county is adequately protecting and caring for children in distressed families.

The lack of YFS accountability and oversight revealed by these documents is deeply disturbing. As disturbing is the seeming lack of urgency Mecklenburg officials are displaying in getting to the bottom of this situation and making sure protections are adequate.

It’s profoundly troubling that county administrators did not share the report’s damning assessments with the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, which is responsible for overseeing the county Department of Social Services and its YFS division. Only one commissioner, board chairman Harold Cogdell, has said he was aware of the study, and even he said he hasn’t seen a copy of it.

And it’s unfathomable that more than a year after the $75,000 consultants’ study, the county hasn’t fully implemented the report’s major recommendations. One that stands out is the recommendation that Risk be removed as director and reassigned. So far, Risk remains head of YFS but has been reassigned to County General Manager Michelle Lancaster.

Mary Wilson, whose firing as DSS head this summer preceded these and other troubling revelations about the DSS division, wrote a similar assessment of Risk in a 2009 memo a few months after she was hired. That and other information about YFS is a bone of contention in Wilson’s appeal of her firing. She’s called her termination unfair, and that it stems from her attempt to right problems at DSS.

But the consultants, former officials with the N.C. Division of Social Services, call Wilson to task as well. They questioned her leadership and noted that her “exceedingly poor working relationship” with Risk had created “mistrust,” the level of which “contributed to an environment of divisiveness and confusion.” The study also recommended undoing several staffing changes Wilson had made, including her reduction of the number of YFS mental health specialists from 20 to one.

County officials have been laying blame at Wilson’s feet. But the consultants’ report finds culpability among many and said the loss of a “culture of accountability” came prior to Wilson’s arrival.

The buck eventually stops with County Manager Harry Jones and the commissioners, all of whom have fallen short in performing their oversight roles.

Brett Loftis, executive director of the Council for Children’s Rights, one of the 30 people consultants interviewed for their study, says too often it takes a media spotlight to get commissioners to pay attention to child welfare issues.

It should not, and must not. The safety of children is at risk. The county must urgently tackle deficiencies that place them in jeopardy.

Talk is not enough.

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