Not so fast: Counties struggle with new state social services computer system

It’s been over a year since North Carolina began the rollout of a new computer program called NC FAST, for North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology. The system was supposed to make it easier to process applications for social services like Food and Nutrition Services, Work First and Medicaid, but it’s not smooth sailing yet.

Fired Swain DSS director steered aid to relatives

fr cagleA wrongful firing suit by Tammy Cagle, the former director of Swain County Department of Social Services, has shed light on a series of unorthodox payments funneled to Cagle’s family members for social assistance.

State rejects former Swain DSS director’s appeal of firing

fr dssA wrongful firing claim by the former director of the Swain County Department of Social Services has been rejected by the state.

County mulls best way to dispose of old DSS building

fr olddssHaywood County leaders have substantially lowered the asking price for the empty, run-down, old hospital — it’s now free.

Haywood considers integration of county departments

Haywood County is moving slowly towards consolidating its Department of Social Services and Health Department to save money and become more efficient. 

Last year, the N.C. General Assembly approved legislation that allows counties to combine the two departments into one Department of Human Services. Previously, only Mecklenburg and Wake counties were allowed to have consolidated health and social services departments.

Social worker charged in cover-up agrees to talk as part of plea bargain

fr littlejohnA Swain County social worker pleaded guilty in court this week to doctoring and fabricating records two years ago following the death of a 15-month-old baby.

Troubling spike in foster children prompts budget shortfalls

The number of children in foster care in Haywood County is on the rise, a depressing sign for Department of Social Services workers whose first goal is to keep a family together.

“Growing up in foster care or growing up in an institution is no way to grow up,” said Ira Dove, director of the county’s Department of Social Services. Dove presented his case to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Monday, requesting additional money to pay for the increasing costs of running foster care.

DSS says faith-based aid groups help fill in gaps

fr lifeworksAs government aid shrinks and church groups step up to fill the void, the thin and sometimes fuzzy line between church and state has gotten even more complicated.

Jackson, Haywood settle tug-of-war over mental health agency jobs

The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center will not be buying and moving into Waynesville’s former Department of Social Services office building after all, leaving Haywood County back at Square One trying to unload the large, dated, four-story brick complex built decades ago as a hospital.

DSS had outgrown the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year. The center expressed an interest in buying the old office building earlier this month.

The agency had weighed uprooting its headquarters from Sylva and moving to Haywood County, taking with it 60 jobs. The primary motivation was finding a larger space to house an additional 100 jobs being added in the next two years as Smoky Mountain Center gears up to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

But, the proposal received strenuous political pushback from Jackson County and leaders in the far-western counties concerned about potential job losses in their neck of the woods.

Brian Ingraham, area director for Smoky Mountain Center, and Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs, emphasized that the agency merely had been exploring options when considering the old hospital in Haywood as a site for their expansion and new headquarters. But when that option was taken to Smoky Mountain Center’s board of directors last week, they ruled it out — to Haywood County’s obvious chagrin.

“Well, it is disappointing. But I do understand the situation,” said Bill Upton, a Smoky Mountain board member and Haywood County commissioner. “They were caught between a rock and a hard place. And there will be other opportunities for Haywood County.”

Haywood still stands to gain a slice of the new jobs Smoky Mountain Center will be adding, which could now be placed in several locations across its 15-county service area, Foreman said. Haywood could end up with a majority of those new jobs, while Jackson gets to keep its existing ones, Jackson County Commissioner Jack Debnam said.

The mental health agency is poised to morph into basically a public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid.

“The situation is fluid,” Ingraham said. “We have to adapt to that and plan for the best possible outcomes that we can.”

Ronnie Beale, a Smoky Mountain board member and Macon County commissioner, said “this wasn’t the time to be buying any property.”

Beale said the board vote was not unanimous, and that a strong argument was made that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, thereby increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs.

Beale said that he doesn’t buy arguments that it will be more difficult to recruit workers into the far western counties than into Haywood County, which is better poised to draw on the workforce pool in neighboring Asheville.

“That’s part of the stigma is that you can’t hire people out here,” Beale said. “I think we can.”

As for what to do with the old hospital in Haywood County, Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said the county would continue its marketing efforts.

Child fatality review in Swain case held up by state backlog

More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.

Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.

Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.

In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.

The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.

It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.

“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.

By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.

“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.

But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.

Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.

The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.

Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.

 

Swain DSS records in baby’s death to remain sealed

Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.

Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.

Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.

There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.

The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.

In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.

But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.

The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.

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