The Wilkes Social Service Board on Wednesday night addressed recommendations in a state report that identified deficiencies in Wilkes Department of Social Services (DSS) child protective services.
The five-member board discussed the seven-page report’s findings for nearly three hours among themselves and with Wilkes DSS Director Bill Sebastian in closed session before unanimously approving a resolution in open session.
The resolution directed Sebastian to address all “deficiencies of leadership” identified in the report, released April 17 by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
It also said the Wilkes board would hold Sebastian accountable for the integrity of Wilkes DSS and noted that the N.C. Division of Social Services would help him develop a corrective action plan to bring Wilkes DSS child protective services into compliance.
Like the state report, the resolution mandated that Sebastian develop a plan to address a high turnover rate among child welfare social workers and add a fifth supervisor position in child protective services (CPS).
Sebastian said in an interview that he planned to employ a human resources consultant to help address the high turnover rate. The state report said Wilkes DSS had a 39.29 percent vacancy rate among child welfare social workers, compared to a statewide average of 22.49 percent. Sebastian said the Wilkes agency’s turnover rate has been this high for two to 2½ years.
The state report required that Wilkes DSS fill a CPS supervisor position that has been vacant since county officials directed that it be “frozen” in 2008-09 as part of cost-cutting measures. The report also said a fifth supervisor was needed to meet supervisor to staff ratio requirements.
Sebastian said County Manager John Yates on Thursday gave him permission to start advertising to fill the frozen supervisor position and that a person now employed as a social worker in CPS will fill another supervisor position that became vacant with a resignation in the last six months. Two CPS social worker positions also became vacant within the last six weeks.
The resolution directed Sebastian to create and fill a social work program manager position. Although not in the report, state officials also recommended hiring a social work program manager to oversee the five supervisors in CPS.
If commissioners approve the social work program manager position, this person would work, as the resolution stated, “to ensure that state policies are followed to the letter.” Sebastian said this person will report to Wilkes DSS Child Protective Services Program Director Kevin Brown, thus freeing Brown to focus more on his other responsibilities.
He said DSS Foster Care Supervisor Hal Wilson would take on additional duties of more immediate oversight of the five CPS supervisors. Wilson, already overseeing two foster care supervisors, will report to the social work program manager if the position is created.
Thursday morning, Sebastian added $58,000 to the $68,425 increase over the prior year already sought for Wilkes DSS from the county for a social work program manager, plus two new income case workers elsewhere in DSS. If approved, half of the $58,000 will be reimbursed by the state.
Blake Lovette made the motion to approve the resolution and Vice Chairman Glenda Triplett seconded the motion. The other board members are Chairman John Myers, Larry Pendry and Keith Elmore, also a county commissioner.
The report released April 17 cited an average of 219 assessment cases open at the end of each month and 62 new cases each month in 2013 and attributed these high numbers mostly to lack of supervisor oversight. Each assessment case is an investigation to determine validity of reports of child abuse and/or neglect.
Sebastian said the number of open assessment cases went from a record high of 309 in March 2012 to 197 this past March due to increased focus on resolving cases.
“As a result, confirmed cases have increased and so has the number of children placed in foster care,” he said. Confirmed child abuse or neglect cases under Wilkes DSS management increased from 56 in March 2012 to 79 this past March. Foster care cases increased from 128 to 160 in the same period.
In early 2012, he said, Wilkes DSS was down one supervisor and had two fewer investigator positions than needed to meet state standards. Sebastian said these factors, staff out on medical and maternity leave and a high turnover rate were primary causes of Wilkes DSS not meeting state timeframes for resolving open reports.
“When the agency gets behind with these large numbers in our programs, it is difficult to catch up, but the safety of each child is critical and we strive to meet all state timeframes for working cases at DSS.”
In the first week of March, state DSS staff reviewed 28 CPS cases, including 17 assessment cases open 62 to 450 days. Among the 17 cases, ongoing contacts to assure child safety were sufficient in 11.8 percent and criminal checks on all adults were completed in 35.3 percent.
State DSS staff found inconsistent recordkeeping, poor documentation of cases (including illegible handwritten notes), lack of quality assurance reviews. They cited no clear coordination between supervisors, resulting in diverse decision-making and disagreements on case management.
Myers said in an interview, “We’ve got to handle any report of child abuse and make sure they are checked on in a timely manner. I think Bill (Sebastian) and Hal (Wilson) can handle this.”
Myers added, “I think we’re on the right track and will comply with what the state wants us to do…. I think the county commissioners are in agreement with the board on what is needed for improvement.”
Elmore said leaving a supervisor position unfilled since 2008-09 was a factor, but that the combination of a high turnover rate and people being out on leave was a bigger cause of CPS assessments not being resolved in a timely manner.
“This goes directly to supervisors and ultimately Bill (Sebastian) is held responsible for the operation over there. If you’ve got a high vacancy rate and the job isn’t getting done, you’ve just got to get it done. No one at the top has been taking action to make sure it gets done,” said Elmore.
“In the private sector, you just have to make sure you get the job done and you wouldn’t get by with this.”
Elmore added, “I understand that Bill and others were being told that everything was being taken care of. Maybe the negligence was that they didn’t actually go look at reports,” he added.
He said Sebastian and other Wilkes DSS administrative staff have had to focus much of their attention on recent problems with NC FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology), a software system for processing household requests for food and nutrition services.
“The consensus of the board at this time is that Bill is the best person to fix this because of his knowledge of the department, but Bill could retire tomorrow (with full benefits because of he has at least 30 years with Wilkes DSS) but he isn’t because of his integrity and dedication.”
Elmore said he has received many calls from citizens saying Sebastian should be fired, “but if we got rid of him at this time we would have employees leaving and it would probably be a disaster. He is trying to get it fixed and I think that speaks well for his integrity.”
The state’s review of Wilkes DSS CPS cases resulted primarily from media attention given to a case involving two Wilkes County children in foster care after their father was convicted of sex offenses in Wilkes. The two children were the victims.
After removing them from their Wilkes home, Wilkes DSS put them in a Yadkin County home where a man and a woman were subsequently charged with committing sex offenses against the two juveniles.
“My understanding was that Wilkes DSS caseworkers were advised by Yadkin County DSS to not place them in the home” in Yadkin, said Elmore.
The issue is that the woman charged with sex offenses had a prior physical child abuse conviction in Yadkin County. Wilkes officials say Wilkes DSS caseworkers were told that only the man lived in the home. They determined he had no history of sex offenses and didn’t know it when the woman returned to live with him, Wilkes officials said.
“At least there was very poor judgment shown,” said Elmore.
The April 17 report didn’t include any findings on this or other foster care cases.
Two women and a child were allowed into the Wilkes social services board meeting to speak to the board about another case Wednesday night.
The Wilkes Journal-Patriot was told that the two women stated their concern about a foster child being placed in a home with illegal drugs and said Wilkes DSS didn’t have adults in the home drug tested. The newspaper was told that Wilson was instructed to investigate the matter.
The state report said state DSS staff would do a follow up review within six months to determine progress toward addressing findings of the review in early March.