In CPP’s series Dodging Standards, we found that some 5,000 children across NC enter the notice of social service agencies each year but face drastically different outcomes depending on where they live. CPP’s reporting showed that some of the state’s 100 counties remove children from families at several times the statewide rate, while other counties are removing children at less than half the statewide rate. This and other systemic problems lead to inconsistent and undesirable outcomes for vulnerable children and families.
In one county alone, CPP’s reporting investigated the negligence of local social service leaders and its impact on children and families. Our reporting helped lead to state and federal investigations of the agency, where the director was also the wife of the county sheriff. She did not meet employment requirements, and while she was director, workers removed dozens of children from their families without court approval. This has resulted in dozens of civil and criminal court cases in which CPP’s reporting was repeatedly cited; the rural Appalachian county now faces more than $53 million in fees, individual and family settlements, and payments to the courts and attorneys.
This is but one example, however. Overall, the series demonstrated a clear pattern of minimal standards enforcement and oversight from NCDHHS and other state agencies that oversee county departments of social services. NC is an outlier among the 50 states in the oversight of social services. Along with eight other states, NC relies on county-run DSS offices for on-the-ground decisions while the state health department, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, has only a supportive role, offering training and providing policy guidance. In most parts of the country, the state, rather than local counties, is in charge of most social services.
The series asked why, and the answers were revealing. Sometimes state officials have demonstrated a lack of will and political stomach to tackle county problems. At other times, state authorities lack adequate authority under state law, policy and organization. The series showed how issues of qualifications and lack of oversight threaten the well being of vulnerable children, adults and families in the social services system.