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RALEIGH — The state’s troubled child welfare system could be in line for a major overhaul, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing to change how the state cares for vulnerable children.

Proposed state legislation would reconfigure the state’s existing system from a county-based system, in which social service departments investigate claims of abuse and neglect of children, to multiple regional offices with increased state oversight.

The reforms would also bring in outside consultants to evaluate the North Carolina’s child welfare system and give recommendations of better ways to ensure children’s welfare.

Changes outlined in Senate Bill 594 and the companion bill House Bill 608 come in response to growing concerns about the disparate way cases are handled across the state as well as a recent federal review that found North Carolina failed to meet federal child welfare standards.

Advocates for children say the reforms are desperately needed, with record numbers of children entering the foster care system as the state grapples with the opioid addiction crisis and economic challenges in rural areas.

“This is at a complete crisis for these kids,” said Brett Loftis, who runs the Crossnore School and Children’s Home in Avery County and Winston-Salem. “We need dramatic change and this [legislation] is just a beginning.”

The major reforms outlined in the bill wouldn’t take immediate effect, without details about how the transition to regional child welfare offices would work.

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The child welfare reform proposals have support from both sides of the N.C. General Assembly’s political aisles, a rarity in a state legislature marked in recent years by deep partisan divides. Several Western North Carolina lawmakers have been involved in crafting the legislation, including state Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat.

“I see this as a first step to creating a system that acknowledges the good work that is being done and leverages that across counties,” Van Duyn said.

Other Western North Carolina lawmakers that have signed on as sponsors include state Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Blowing Rock, and state Reps. Brian Turner, D-Asheville, Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, and Jonathan Jordan, R-Jefferson.

Ongoing problem

North Carolina’s child welfare system has long faced problems, with high-profile cases of abuse exposing holes in a system that at times left children hurt, or even dead. In a case that attracted international attention, then 13-year-old Erica Parsons disappeared from Rowan County in 2011 but was not reported missing by her adoptive parents. Police believe the girl, who was partially deaf, endured years of abuse before she died. Her adoptive parents are now serving prison sentences in connection with Erica’s death.

In Union County, an 11-year-old boy was found in 2013 at a foster care home handcuffed to a porch with a dead chicken around this neck as punishment. His foster care mother was a supervisor in the county social services department, the very agency tasked with keeping him out of harm’s way.

Carolina Public Press has reported on several issues as well, including a case in which a Transylvania County boy in foster care was put up for adoption by social services officials upon his mother’s death, without notifying family members in Henderson County who wanted to take him in and were raising his brother.

North Carolina’s county-based system has left the state with 100 different ways of conducting investigations and caring for children, resulting in vast differences in how children are treated across the state, said Michelle Hughes, the executive director of N.C. Child, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of children.

Switching to a system with more state oversight and regional offices would standardize how allegations of abuse and neglect are handled across the state, she said.

Hughes is also encouraged by the legislation’s focus on spending time pulling together the various groups that work with at-risk children to develop solutions, as opposed to mandating changes to be handed down from the legislature.

“We want this process to work well,” Hughes said. “it’s going to take some time versus just flipping a switch.”

The bill, if adopted as currently written, would:

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  • Transition child welfare responsibilities from agencies based in each of the 100 counties to 30 or fewer regional authorities by 2022
  • Give the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services more authority to enforce performance standards
  • Push for accelerated adoption of the statewide N.C. FAST caseload system and phase out the use of paper records at county DSS offices
  • Bring in outside consultants to evaluate the existing system and develop best practice recommendations
  • Create a working group of child welfare officials and advocacy groups to develop recommendations on changes with a report due in June 2018
  • Reduce the period of time it takes a child to be adopted in the child welfare system
  • Creates a pilot program to give older teenagers in the foster care system seeking driver licenses access to car insurance

Loftis, the Crossnore Children’s Home director, said failing to address problems now continues to put children’s lives at risk.

The federal review, he said, highlighted how much of a crisis the state is in.

“If that happened at one of our hospitals, it would be shut down,” he said. “Because it’s children, it’s just a lot more accepted.”

Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a contributing state government reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at sarahovaskafew@gmail.com.

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