MURPHY, N.C. – After an executive session at the March 19 Cherokee County Board of Commissioners meeting, Michael Becketts, assistant secretary for human services with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), spoke to the commissioners about the recent NCDHHS oversight into the county Department of Social Services (DSS) child welfare services.
Earlier in the day, a team of eight representatives from NCDHHS arrived in Cherokee County and assumed leadership of child welfare services at the Cherokee County Department of Social Services (DSS), as authorized under state law.
According to a statement from Kelly Haight, press assistant for the NCDHHS office of communications, “DHHS initiated an investigation of child welfare services in Cherokee County after learning that the Cherokee Department of Social Services had been using ‘Custody and Visitation Agreements’ in removing children from parents and placing them in other homes without the required oversight of the court system. Subsequent information gathered during DHHS’ investigation revealed a systematic lack of adequate training, supervision and capacity to deliver appropriate child welfare services beyond the use of the Custody and Visitation Agreements.”
According to information from NCDHHS, over 2,000 child protective service cases dating back to 2008 in which a Custody and Visitation Agreement was utilized were reviewed. After reviewing information from 29 of those cases, a letter from NCDHHS including a corrective action plan was sent the Cherokee County DSS March 13. However, in the two days following the letter sent to Cherokee DSS, new information provided to NCDHHS led the state agency to feel that the Cherokee County DSS “is not providing child welfare services in accordance with the law, rule and policy, and further, the failure to provide these services in accordance with the law, rule and policy poses a substantial threat to the safety and welfare of children in Cherokee County.”
A second letter from NCDHHS sent to the Cherokee County DSS further states that pursuant to “authority under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 108A-74(c), NCDHHS will begin assuming temporary direction operation of the child welfare services in Cherokee County on Monday, March 19, 2018.”
“Our first priority is to protect the safety and well-being of the vulnerable children and families in need of child welfare services across our state,” DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a statement. “There is a lot of work to be done to bring Cherokee County Department of Social Services into compliance with laws, policies and appropriate child welfare practices.”
At the commissioners meeting, Becketts told the board the NCDHHS team, in its short time in Cherokee County, the team had already met with “county leadership,” including the Board of Commissioners, County Manager Randy Wiggins, and Cherokee County DSS Director Cindy Palmer.
“What we found in our approach is a rather supportive community for our role here in Cherokee County,” Becketts said. “While it is not necessarily the happiest occasion for us to be in Cherokee County, we do appreciate how you have welcomed us into your community.”
Among the team from NCDHHS, as Becketts explained, are individuals with familiarity and extensive experience in the fields of child welfare services, social services, foster care and adoption.
“We brought some really good minds and people who are used to not only western North Carolina but are familiar with Cherokee County,” Becketts added.
Becketts stated the team has divided its work into three areas: “One is related to the known issue of the Custody and Visitation Agreements; one is aligning child welfare practice in Cherokee County DSS with law, policy and rule; and the other body of work is … restoring the faith that the community has in the DSS to do good work on behalf of vulnerable children.”
Becketts told the commissioners the team, in its first day, had already noted two critical areas of improvement for the county DSS: support for the DSS attorney and a need for staff training.
“What we want to do is take an opportunity to continue to access the situation, and over the course this week and probably next, work with the county manager to develop a strategy on how we will actually be able to effectively support child welfare services in Cherokee County,” Becketts continued.
On Wednesday afternoon, March 21, an executive session meeting was held with members from NCDHHS team and Cherokee County DSS board members. Bob Cochran, children’s program representative for the NCDHHS team, confirmed no official action was taken during Wednesday closed session meeting.
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