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Stoney Blevins, director of the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, testified before a state legislative committee last week, saying he couldn’t tell legislators much about a specific child welfare case due to confidentiality laws.
While Blevins was able to speak to the accuracy, or lack thereof, in a Black Mountain police report regarding the case, he skirted the details known to him and his social workers because state law requires a judge’s ruling to give specifics of a confidential case, he told lawmakers.
“If a judge releases the record, the judge can release a record to whatever parties they choose to,” Blevins said.
Blevins was subpoenaed to appear before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee of Health and Human Services last week — a tool legislators rarely use to compel uncooperative witnesses. Blevins had said the subpoena was unnecessary.
When he arrived at the hearing, Blevins was told that there, in fact, was not a subpoena — a fact that was disputed among different members of the committee throughout the hearing lasting more than two hours. Carolina Public Press has confirmed that there was a subpoena.
While Blevins said the state’s juvenile code forbade him from providing specifics about the March incident, he had a lot to say about improving the state’s child welfare system.
Police report in doubt?
Blevins challenged the accuracy of a Black Mountain Police Department’s report that had led to the request for him to appear before legislators.
Police had pulled over a driver who was swerving over the white line. Three adults and a 9-year-old girl were in the car. Police arrested all three adults after saying they found drugs and used needles, according to the report.
But this left the question for the officers of how to help the girl, they said.
Police called Buncombe DSS, and a county DSS worker told a police officer to leave the girl in the custody of a man she did not know in a hotel room filled with used drug needles, according to the police report.
Blevins strongly disagreed with this last claim.
“It is my statement, based off my information, that no (DSS) staff member in Buncombe County has given the advice for a police officer to leave a child in a room with a stranger and 100 to 200 needles,” Blevins said, speaking about the police report.
Blevins pointed out that the police report says the officer hung up on the DSS worker who was trying to take the report. Much like 911 operators, DSS workers ask specific questions when taking information on a new case, called intake, he explained.
The purpose of intake questions is to determine how urgently a case needs the government’s attention. Some abuse is so heinous that workers are required to investigate immediately. Other cases require that they respond within 24 or 72 hours.
A legislative study has shown that intake procedures differ widely among counties throughout North Carolina. In addition, the intake procedures can be arduous, and repetitive questions can fluster those reporting suspected child maltreatment.
The study showed that correctly ranking the risk to children can be a difficult task, and even supervisors can incorrectly screen hypothetical child welfare cases.
Buncombe County DSS has since changed its procedures, Blevins told Carolina Public Press last month. He said a social worker now shows up every time a law enforcement officer requests such a presence and will perform the intake report at the scene.
Throughout last week’s hearing, Blevins explained the delicate balance of preserving parental rights while ensuring children are cared for.
Can the system be improved?
At times he was asked his thoughts on how to improve the state’s child welfare system.
Blevins said to improve the child welfare system, North Carolina doesn’t need major changes in the law, rather “a unified commitment to implement the plans we already have.”
For instance, he said, he can think of at least three studies of the child welfare system, in addition to federal reviews and several other legislative-level studies.
“Almost every one of those studies says essentially the same thing; the recommendations are pretty much the same,” Blevins told the committee. “And yet, I do not see proof that we’ve implemented the plans that have been made.”
The state and counties, which implement state and federal policies at a local level, need to commit to make the changes, he said.
“We have a broken child welfare system that we refuse to invest in,” Blevins said.
“And then we seem surprised when it fails. And so I’m not sure we need a (new) law. To be perfectly honest, I just think we need to take action.”
Balancing oversight and confidentiality
He answered legislators’ questions about generic procedures but drew the line when asked about the specific case.
“I had this conversation with (Sen. Chuck Edwards) the very first day we spoke in April,” Blevins said. “The mechanism to get that level of discussion is with an order signed by a judge. And I’m willing to have that conversation if this body is willing to take that action.”
Throughout the hearing Blevins lauded Buncombe County’s DSS office as a model for other counties.
“At one point, we were having upwards of 400 babies a year born at Mission Hospital with illicit drugs in their system,” Blevins said. “… Because of that, we placed one of our staff at the hospital. So, we fund a position to work at the hospital so that we can respond to these situations as soon as that baby is delivered. These are system answers to human problems.”
Time and again, though, lawmakers tried to turn the conversation back toward the specific case. Blevins evaded, citing confidentiality rules.
Sen. Jim Perry pushed back at the notion of blanket confidentiality.
“I do not believe it is a blanket black box that prevents you from having any discussion about anything related to your department,” Perry said.
“(Health and Human Services) is a creation of this body, the fine men and women who were here long before me, and the only purpose of having an oversight committee is to provide oversight.”
Sen. Ralph Hise similarly said he disagreed with Blevins’ assertion that he couldn’t talk about the case and asserted that the General Assembly did not need permission from the judicial branch to do its job.
“I truly hope in this process that this confidentiality requirement isn’t being used to hide the mistakes,” Hise said. “And I think you could understand how we would see that it could have the department or its failures.”
At the close of the hearing, Sen. Edwards asked Blevins if the same DSS worker handled both calls from the Black Mountain Police Department.
“I apologize that I can’t answer,” Blevins said.
“If you can’t answer because you don’t know or you can answer because you refuse to under some other authority,” Edwards said.
Blevins said confidentiality laws, as well as state rules surrounding personnel information, prevent him from saying more without a judge’s intervention.
“I can promise you, I would be better served to speak to you about the things you’re asking me,” Blevins said.
“But when public officials do not abide by the laws, they take an oath to, to stand for, then our system is in trouble. … If we need to talk specifics, all I would ask is that we take the appropriate legal steps so that I can talk to you freely without violating the law that I took an oath to uphold.”
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