Sen. Steve Jarvis, R-Davidson, speaks at the lectern while Gov. Roy Cooper stands behind him at a bill signing, Thursday afternoon at the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of Sen. Jarvis' office.

Children in North Carolina’s foster care system may be placed in permanent homes faster after Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill with several changes to the state’s child welfare processes on Wednesday.

“This legislation takes important steps to help protect children from abuse and neglect and to help them grow up successfully in a safe environment,” Cooper said in remarks Wednesday afternoon.

The bill cuts some red tape in efforts to reunite children with parents who are completing court-ordered services. It also speeds up the process for finding a permanent home for the child when parental rights have been severed by a judge.

“The sooner we can have a child in a stable environment, it’s just going to be better off for all of the children involved,” said state Sen. Steve Jarvis, R-Davidson, one of the bill’s main sponsors. Sponsors include Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, and Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson.

The law also asks the state Department of Health and Human Services to study how much it would cost to run a statewide hot line for child abuse and neglect reports.

County department of social services offices currently are required to have what’s called a permanency planning hearing before a judge within 12 months of a judge’s order to remove a child from home. Hearings whereby parental rights are not yet terminated are instead called “review hearings.”

Senate Bill 693 cuts that time for the required first permanency planning or review hearing to within three months after a judge authorizes a child’s removal from a home.

A positive drug test under this bill is also no longer a good enough reason to keep parents from court-ordered visitation with their child, though a DSS director may later require that visits be supervised.

The legislation also allows a judge to waive further review hearings if parents complete court-ordered services and the child is living in a safe home.

Hot line study

The legislation directs DHHS to study the costs and logistics of starting a statewide child abuse and neglect reporting hot line and present a report to lawmakers next year.

Each of North Carolina’s 100 counties currently screens its own reports to see whether they merit further investigation. The county department of social services must send someone to investigate the claim either immediately, within 24 hours or within 72 hours, depending on the severity of allegations.

Some counties only have a limited number of social workers to screen calls that can come at any time of the day or night. 

A Carolina Public Press investigation into the state’s child welfare system showed Georgia has seen more consistent results in recent years with a statewide abuse and neglect reporting hot line.

“Our centralized intake was doing a lot of immediate referrals,” said Tom Rawlings, director of Georgia’s Division of Family and Child Services. Foster care numbers dropped after “we really started focusing on safety and removing children only when there was a significant safety threat.”

Jarvis said the hot line in North Carolina would help standardize responses to child welfare concerns “so that every DSS is operating, not just in a silo to themselves but operating as a state in one direction.”

A CPP investigation earlier this year showed wide inconsistencies in how often counties remove children from their homes.

Records access

Another provision of the legislation allows lawmakers to view the confidential information in individual case files, a proposal that drew protests from DSS agencies last year.

The issue came to a head during a committee hearing last year, when legislators demanded to know what happened to a child after a traffic stop in Black Mountain. 

Legislators in the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services voted to subpoena Buncombe County DSS Director Stoney Blevins, but he showed up to the hearing of his own free will.

Edwards said during the hearing that a police officer was told by a social worker to leave a 9-year-old girl in a hotel room with hundreds of used drug needles and a man she didn’t know named “Stanley.”

“We would never support leaving a child in a hotel room with a stranger and 300 used needles, as a blanket statement,” Blevins said last year. 

“As an agency that works with parents experiencing substance use disorder and children exposed to multiple dangers every day, our agency would never give that guidance.”

Ultimately, the legislators peppered Blevins with questions as he skirted some of the queries due to rules surrounding confidentiality for child welfare cases.

Unequivocally, though, Blevins said no DSS staff member told police to leave a girl in that hotel room.

Some legislators said they couldn’t know for sure what happened and advocated for a change to state law to allow individual lawmakers to view confidential information at DSS offices. A committee can also request confidential information and view it during a closed session, the law states.

However, the law also says lawmakers can access the information only if federal law does not prohibit it.

“What we are trying to do is implement areas where we are better able to have oversight over DHHS and make sure that the best interest of the child is at the forefront of everything that’s being done,” Jarvis said. 

“If we don’t have insight into what’s happening, we don’t know how to address if there’s legislative changes that may be needed.”

Blevins did not return a request for comment on the passage of SB 693. Requests for comment from the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services also went unanswered.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.