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Some 5,000 children across North Carolina enter the notice of social service agencies each year but face drastically different outcomes depending on where they live.
In some counties, children who ought to be seen by social workers may not be getting their notice at all, while social workers in other counties remove children from their homes at much higher rates than the state average.
A Carolina Public Press analysis of information from all 100 counties over a decade shows some counties remove children from homes at rates far higher than the statewide average, while other counties rarely remove a child from homes.
To be sure, social workers face a balancing act between the best interests of the child to live a life free of abuse and neglect, and the desire to keep families together. When that balance of interests shifts and the child is in danger, social workers are supposed to know whether to step in immediately or when to provide help to struggling parents, as well as when they should leave a family alone.
The extremes seen in the county-by-county data suggest that whether a child remains with his parents may have less to do with the individual circumstances of a case and more to do with how a department of social services interprets and applies regulations.
For families living in poverty, it doesn’t take much to push them into a crisis. For Brian Hogan, that event was his wife’s heart attack in April 2016, a few months after Hogan regained permanent legal custody of his then-10-year-old girl from a Cherokee County District Court judge.
Hogan drove to Asheville for what he thought might be his wife’s final moments and left his daughter in the care of a neighbor — her best friend’s parents. Those moments at the hospital stretched to days, then weeks. After Cherokee County Department of Social Services workers said they didn’t want his daughter living with the neighbor anymore, he relinquished temporary custody of his daughter to his father.
It was a false choice. Hogan had nowhere else to send her, he later testified in court.
Hogan testified that his father told him his hospitalized wife was a “druggie” and told Hogan he was “a worthless father” who “shouldn’t have had kids.”
By the time Hogan’s wife was out of the hospital, he was out of work. He had almost nothing. His belongings had been thrown out when he couldn’t pay rent, and he struggled to furnish his new space to make it ready for his daughter’s return.
That fall, Cherokee County DSS workers asked Hogan and his father to sign another document. Though formatted to give it the illusion of authority, no judge was present when he signed it. He was not represented by an attorney, nor was his daughter.
Multiple social workers later testified that they were told by the then-DSS attorney to use the documents for dozens of removals, including the removal of Hogan’s daughter from his care.
The Custody and Visitation Agreement was later ruled unlawful and a product of actual and constructive fraud.
Social workers testified they had parents sign these CVAs for “stuck cases,” or for cases where social workers thought children would be safer in another home, but they might not prevail in court to have them removed by a judge.
Hogan said he feared his daughter would be taken by the state and he would never see her again if he did not sign the paper.
Once the ruse was uncovered more than a year later, Hogan got his daughter back — but the trauma of the separation lingers for both father and daughter. Hogan is wracked by guilt.
“He blamed himself,” forensic psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Gaskins testified in court. “If he was smarter, he would’ve been able to stop it.”
Another forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Jesse Raley, testified that the girl, now 14 years old, told him she felt unstable after moving around.
“‘Why care about anyone because I was going to get moved again?’” he testified she told him. “‘Why get connected emotionally because it could all go away?’”
All over the map
While state officials say Cherokee County was an aberration — CVAs have not originated in any other county so far — wide variation exists in how often social workers take children from homes depending on where they live.
This by itself doesn’t necessarily mean that any of these counties were doing anything improper. Each county and the families living there have different circumstances. But given the autonomy and latitude counties in North Carolina have to enact policies without the state able to hold them meaningfully accountable, it could suggest a posture of aggressive removals of children in some counties but an extreme reluctance to intervene in others.
Both extremes have the potential to lead to negative outcomes for the children affected, as well as for their families.
Carolina Public Press examined data from reports made about child placements after social workers initially investigated their homes and compared the number of child removals to the number of children living in each county according to U.S. census figures.
Over the past decade, the child removal rate statewide has varied slightly from year to year. As some areas of the state struggled with opioid addiction, social workers removed more children. Economic factors that can create tensions in homes have also been more acute in different places at different times.
Even so, the analysis shows a sharp discrepancy across the state. For 2015, for instance, for every 100,000 children living in North Carolina, 222 were removed from their homes.
In Buncombe County that year, the rate was 1.75 times the state’s figure, high though not among the highest.
Rebecca Smith, director of social work for Buncombe County Health and Human Services, said the opioid epidemic was in full force that year.
“I think our initial approach to that crisis was maybe not the best approach in that it was a fairly punitive way to handle the situation,” Smith said.
While Buncombe County social workers may have taken children from parents who abused drugs, the approach today is more family centered, she said.
“We are treating the parents,” Smith said. “We are asking parents about their lived experience that led to this moment. We are asking them about past trauma and their history. We are taking a trauma-informed approach.”
Social workers there pair parents who need help with counseling and treatment for drug addiction. So far, she said it’s working.
“Foster care is not ideal for any child,” Smith said.
In 2015, Cherokee County’s removal rate was more than 4 1/2 times the state’s rate, but it also has a much smaller population of children. That year, the census reported nearly 4,800 children lived in the far western county, and state data show social workers removed 49 of them from their homes after an initial assessment.
A swing the other way — where counties remove very few children — can also be a red flag. Chowan, Gates and Perquimans counties removed zero children from homes in 2015.
In fact, of the last 10 full years of data, Gates County removed children from their homes five times. In six of those years, social workers removed none at all.
“That means somebody’s not doing their job,” said David Wijewickrama, an attorney in Western North Carolina. “I’d put my bar license on the line to say a child has been abused, neglected, dependent and someone chose not to take out a petition to protect that child.”
Gates County DSS officials did not return requests for comment.
Wake County also removes children far less often compared to the state, 0.2 times the state’s rate for the fiscal year beginning in mid-2019. Paige Rosemond, child welfare division director for Wake County, said it’s partly because fewer people report concerns about children to begin with, especially against white parents.
“It’s often associated with poverty: 85% of the reports that we receive are related to poverty and to neglect,” Rosemond said.
“This can also include not just being able to meet the needs of your child, but substance use, being exposed to domestic violence.”
Her office is examining why reports from professionals — mandated reporters such as law enforcement, medical staff and educators — are disproportionately underreporting whites.
Inconsistency and inequity across the state
Like agencies in the state’s other 99 counties, the Cherokee DSS was charged with determining the best interests of children through the application of federal and state guidelines, overseen in North Carolina by the state Department of Health and Human Services. But the agencies freely interpret those guidelines in different ways, and DHHS has limited oversight and minimal authority to enforce policies. The state agency has struggled to correct abuses when they occur.
Decades of evaluations of the state-supervised but county-administered child protection system show an endemic problem with social worker training and pay, with wide discrepancies from county to county. This means some poor or isolated counties have high turnover rates for a job that requires a bachelor’s degree and at least a month of training on policies and procedures just to get started.
Even as far back as 2003, North Carolina’s office of state personnel noted wide discrepancies among social worker pay. A statewide survey of county-level departments of social services showed a statewide vacancy rate for child welfare positions of 31%. Nearly 3-in-4 workers statewide had five or fewer years of experience in the field.
That pay inequity and experience places some counties at a disadvantage for recruiting and retaining qualified social workers, which translates into policies that deviate from not just guidelines but the law.
A report last year by the General Assembly’s now-dissolved Program Evaluation Division found inconsistent application of state and federal law by child welfare workers statewide. Nearly 1-in-4 counties statewide use additional factors to decide whether to remove a child from a family or when to respond to reports of abuse, neglect or dependency.
This means children in similar circumstances will be treated differently depending on where in North Carolina they live.
North Carolina is among nine states whose system relies on each county to administer state and federal policy, whereas most states have a central office with regional hubs that serve other areas of the state.
Because of this structure, local offices wield a lot of power compared to the state DHHS, which offers policy guidance and training. State officials conduct reviews of child welfare departments roughly every 18 months, which note many of the same problems every year.
Local agencies receiving negative reviews may not take any action to address problems, but the system doesn’t necessarily favor those that try to resolve issues.
Transylvania County Child Protective Services was the subject of a scathing report from DHHS in July 2015. At the time, Tracy Jones had just taken over as DSS director. Within a few weeks, Jones fired Child Protective Services Director Renee Crocker. The dismissal was specifically due to Crocker’s improper involvement in a custody case affecting her daughter’s boyfriend.
Jones wrote in Crocker’s termination letter that “multiple complaints and allegations have been made against you with all involving use of your position with the Transylvania County Department of Social Services to influence court decisions in a private custody case that is not affiliated with our agency.”
But despite these concerns and the awful review from the state, previous Transylvania DSS directors had not given Crocker negative reviews.
As a result, Crocker appealed her dismissal successfully. The N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings concluded that Crocker’s firing was unjustified because the county failed to balance her improper contact with the judge against the whole of her tenure as a county employee, which began in 1999.
DHHS takes over
DHHS itself has the authority to take over offices that fail to meet standards, though it has done so only once: Cherokee County in 2018. Even then, the state was not able to take full control, with the agency rehiring its former director in a financial role, even as she faced ongoing prosecution for her part in activities that state and federal courts have labeled unlawful.
Before that, the county agency had years of audits that outlined a lack of worker training, high caseloads, concerns about supervisory capacity, missing documentation, falsified contact records and failure to meet goals to work with families to reunite children, according to the state’s 2017 review of the office.
In December 2017, a District Court judge warned the state that Cherokee County was using a document called a Custody and Visitation Agreement to separate families. The document looked like a legal document, but it was not.
Rather than go through a judge, workers at Cherokee County’s DSS coerced parents into signing documents that they said permanently separated them from their children.
Several months after DHHS found out about the practice, the situation became the subject of a report from The Associated Press. Only then did DHHS send a team of workers to Cherokee County to take over child welfare duties, including training workers on proper procedures, for seven months.
As the state team settled in during the spring of 2018, it was met with uncooperative and untrained workers. Cindy Palmer, DSS director in charge when workers violated state policies, was put on paid leave. After several weeks she resigned, but local officials immediately rehired her with a demotion, while everyone else in power had been fired or resigned.
Palmer returned even as a State Bureau of Investigation probe into potential criminal charges was underway. The SBI sent several agents to Murphy High School to interview more than a dozen parents for at least two days.
Wayne Black, former DHHS Division of Social Services director, acknowledged the tense atmosphere in an email to other DHHS staffers.
“This can be an awkward situation under the best of circumstances,” Black wrote. He called Palmer’s return to the DSS office with DHHS still in charge of child welfare an “unprecedented situation.” Emails encouraged DHHS workers to limit their contact with Palmer unless it was directly related to her job.
Days after the former director returned to the office, an unprecedented and massive shredding operation was set in motion, where Cherokee County DSS paid thousands of dollars, ostensibly in a rush to make space in a file room that ultimately was not put to any beneficial use.
DHHS officials ordered locking file cabinets for active child welfare files and locks for all employee offices. Palmer’s role did not require her to have access to child welfare files, a DHHS worker wrote.
Shortly after state workers rotated out of the assignment in Cherokee County, the county hired a new director: Amanda McGee, the former Rutherford County child welfare director.
“This is fantastic!!!!” wrote Michael Becketts, then the state’s assistant secretary for human services, in response to that announcement to another state worker. “We can really move to get out of there. When will she start?”
Becketts and the DHHS team left in October 2018, leaving the department to full local rule again.
Palmer, the former Cherokee County DSS attorney and a former social work supervisor have all been charged with more than three dozen felonies and misdemeanors for separating families without judicial oversight.
In what may be the first of many civil cases, last month, a federal jury ruled the Cherokee County DSS office had a culture and practice that violated the parents’ constitutional rights by not allowing an attorney to be present or a judge to sign off on the child’s removal. Parents are entitled to legal representation even if they cannot afford it, and lawyers weren’t present when parents signed the document.
The jury awarded Hogan and his teenage daughter $4.6 million.
“This case came about because of a tragedy, a tragedy of mismanagement, incompetence, and a — well, just honestly — a desire to do things on the cheap,” said plaintiff’s attorney Brandon Christian after the verdict.
“And what I hope the legacy of this case is that people’s constitutional rights are worth more than that.”
Families are often devastated by undesirable outcomes in child protective services cases. This can happen regardless of whether the case was handled properly. But parents, grandparents and other family members concerned about the welfare of their children may go to extreme lengths to change outcomes they view as unjust.
Susan Vaughan thinks Dare County DSS mishandled the case of her grandson, who was removed in 2013. She has undertaken a prolonged court fight. She has lost appeals at each level, including most recently to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to Vaughan, she’s been mocked when she tried to hire lawyers to take her case.
“I’ve been trying to call attorneys, and they’re always, you know, sorry, we can’t help you,” she said.
“The first time, I was laughed at by the person (on the lawyer’s staff), saying you can’t sue the state …,” she said.
“So, I knew that was not true, but she was literally putting me down for asking.”
“I was told that no attorney in the state would take on DSS,” she said. One attorney she spoke with told her “they are like the mafia,” she said.
Currently, Vaughan is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unhappy with previous legal counsel, she represents herself. So far, the court has not agreed to hear her case, but she persists in hoping for a change in the outcome.
While some fight long battles in the courts, other families may go beyond what state law finds acceptable in their own attempts to protect their children.
Joanne McDowell, a former resident of Henderson County who now lives in Ontario, Canada, is legally a fugitive from justice in North Carolina.
Despite a complaint that her son’s pediatrician filed against the boy’s father, an investigation by Buncombe County DSS found the complaint unsubstantiated. McDowell believes the case was mishandled by Buncombe after being handed off from Henderson.
McDowell attempted to appeal that decision but was unable to persuade the North Carolina courts that new evidence in the case should be reviewed. Ultimately, she was ordered to arrange for renewed visits for her son with his father, whom she claimed was abusive, according to court records.
Rather than allow continued contact with the father, McDowell fled with her son to her native Canada. There the courts reviewed the additional evidence that North Carolina courts did not and ruled in her favor.
The North Carolina courts have not so far accepted the findings of the Canadian court. McDowell continues a legal battle to have the state drop the criminal charges against her and overturn the original review of the abuse complaints.
She wrote an affidavit supporting the recent removal of Henderson County District Attorney Gregory Newman, whom she blames for threatening her with prosecution if she returned to North Carolina for what she says was an attempt to protect her son by fleeing.
Because of her history with Henderson County officials, she asked to have her criminal case transferred to the office of N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. She received word last week from the acting district attorney in Henderson County that this request has been granted as she continues her legal fight.
A worker’s knowledge of the law and policy are key to child safety. Deciding whether to remove a child and when is tricky even for experienced social workers.
The legislature’s Program Evaluation Division recommended a rapid-response hot line staffed by experienced child welfare workers for when county workers have questions.
The state of Georgia also used to administer child welfare the way North Carolina does. Its 159 counties each had their own equivalent of a DSS office. However, it recently converted to a more centralized model, demonstrating that change in a state with a population similar to North Carolina’s is possible.
Often, the approach from DHHS toward the counties is equality, which includes equal expectations statewide, when the resources are anything but equal, said Rosemond of Wake County.
“I would like to see more state resources being dedicated to the small and midsize counties to ensure that our families’ experiences, regardless of where they fall geographically in the state, are more equal,” Rosemond said.
That could mean the state pays more per capita for rural and economically disadvantaged areas than urbanized areas that already have a relative wealth of resources.
“Then the state plays a greater role in ensuring access — more equitable access — in addressing those disparities that we know exist within our state,” Rosemond said.
Clarifications: A quote from Buncombe County Health and Human Services Director Stoney Blevins that initially appeared in the article was inadvertently taken out of context and has been removed. The wording of this article regarding the case of Joanne McDowell has been revised slightly to provide greater clarity.
Editor’s note: This is part 1 of the four-part series, “Patchwork protection.” Upcoming installments this week will examine the range of child protective services policies and outcomes across the state, systemic issues that create challenges and potential solutions to these concerns. This project was produced for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 Data Fellowship.