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RALEIGH – North Carolina is on the cusp of reforming its troubled child welfare system.
The state legislature passed legislation last week that sets things in place to overhaul how complaints of child abuse and neglect are handled.
“We’re going to try to reform the state child welfare system by improving accountability and state oversight,” said state Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Mount Airy Republican and sponsor of the reforms bill, during debate on the House floor Wednesday.
The state system has long been plagued with technology challenges and shortages of social services caseworkers while record numbers of children are entering the foster care system. A recent federal review found North Carolina failed to meet federal child welfare standards.
While the bill passed with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, it won’t become law until it receives Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature. As of Monday afternoon, the Democratic governor had not signed the bill.
The final version that passed both houses of the N.C. General Assembly combined two bills dealing with child welfare reforms. One dealt with an ambitious reform of North Carolina’s system to protect children from harm while the other, called Rylan’s Law, sought to add a layer of additional oversight for children who have been removed from a home before being reunited with their parents.
Rylan Ott, two weeks shy of his second birthday, died in April 2016 after wandering away from his mother’s home and drowned in a pond. A judge placed Rylan back in his mother’s care a few months earlier, though a court advocate assigned to Rylan warned his mother wasn’t equipped to care for him.
The new legislation will require that social services case workers observe a parent’s interactions with their child twice before the child is placed back in the home. In Rylan’s case, no one had conducted observations of of him and his mother, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
Major changes ahead
The reforms portion of the legislation will bring in an outside consultant to evaluate North Carolina’s child welfare system, and give recommendations of what practices and laws need to be changed in order to best serve children in the system.
Some House lawmakers objected to merging of the bills by their counterparts in the Senate, complaining that House members hadn’t been able to fully debate and vet the reform measures.
The initial legislation called for a regionalization of all child welfare programs, to replace the 100-county system that currently exists. Child advocates have complained that have 100 different child welfare agencies has led to disparate resources and practices across the state, resulting in situations where what’s considered abusive behavior in one county isn’t in another.
It also has meant families could escape scrutiny by moving across county lines.
During debate on the House floor Wednesday, Stevens said that the reforms being adopted backed away from the required regionalization that an earlier version sought.
Forced regionalization faced too much resistance from stakeholders, Stevens said.
The new version, instead of disbanding the county-level social services agencies, does allow counties to voluntarily merge with others. It will also distribute N.C. Department of Health and Human Services workers across the state to serve as additional resources for county DSS workers and creates a working group to study how regionalization could work.
Not all lawmakers were thrilled about the changes being proposed. State Rep. Carl Ford, a Rowan County Republican, said he was worried the reforms would add bureaucracy without necessarily improving outcomes for children.
“Is another layer of government going to make this better?” Ford asked in Wednesday’s debate. “I hope so for the children’s sake but I’m very skeptical of this.”
Other measures in the legislation would:
- Bring in a third party to evaluate the state’s social services programs, and give recommendations of how the state can best oversee the child welfare, adult protective services and guardianship, public assistance, and child support enforcement systems
- Create a state-level working group to come up with a plan of how to offer regional support to local DSS offices
- Empowers the N.C. DHHS to enforce performance standards at DSS offices
- Creates a council to study children’s issues across state agencies
- Reduces the period of time a parent has to appeal a termination of parental rights to 65 days from 180 days
- Allows teenagers in foster-care homes to obtain driver’s insurance through the state
- Waives requirements that both foster-care parents are employed to care for foster children with severe behavioral or psychiatric issues
To read the bill in its entirety, click here.