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Editor’s note: This article is part 3 of the three-part investigative series Dodging Standards, which examines social services agencies hiring workers who don’t meet minimum standards, systemic challenges in hiring for these positions, how other states avoid these concerns and what North Carolina could do differently. This project was made possible in part through financial backing from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Any North Carolina county could hire a social services director who does not meet minimum qualifications when qualified applicants are ready and able to work, and the state can do nothing to prevent it.
If the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services discovers a director is not qualified, the agency may step in with policy guidance, training suggestions and evaluations — but it cannot remove an unqualified director.
The Office of State Human Resources, which oversees recruitment and hiring for the state’s workforce, cannot remove unqualified directors — or prevent their hire — either.
But hiring an unqualified director when a qualified candidate is able and willing to work wouldn’t even be an option in several other states that share North Carolina’s state-supervised, county-administered system, according to responses to a Carolina Public Press survey of several states.
Just look north of the state line, to Virginia.
There, the state, not counties, advertises and recruits for local social services director positions. State-level staff members review the applications and conduct preliminary interviews with candidates.
“A list of qualified candidates is provided to the local hiring authority,” an unnamed Virginia Department of Social Services spokesperson said. From there, local officials can hire from that list — and only that list.
Including Virginia, eight other states share North Carolina’s decentralized system of state oversight and county administration of social services, but several approach the hiring of local personnel differently.
Some states verify director applicant qualifications and only allow a county to hire from a list of qualified candidates. Even in states where the state agency plays no role in hiring directors, the state agency can still remove unqualified hires.
The N.C Department of Health and Human Services has sometimes needed to intervene when local DSS workers fail to follow state policy or law but does not track and cannot prevent the hiring of unqualified people.
Similar systems with key differences
In states like North Carolina, counties have the authority to run their departments as they wish while following state and federal guidelines, with states acting in a supporting administrative role.
Under this type of system, counties have wide leeway to hire for local positions, with states sometimes stepping in to vet candidates if counties ask for help.
In North Carolina, counties can hire workers who do not meet qualifications if no other candidates are qualified. These employees receive on-the-job training and are in a classification called “work-against.” But some other states like North Carolina require counties to obtain permission from the state to do this.
Among those is Colorado.
The Colorado Department of Human Services’ Child Welfare Division “will sometimes grant waivers to counties, allowing them to hire applicants who lack all of the minimum requirements for a particular position, with the understanding that the new hire will complete prescribed training within a certain time frame of their hire,” said Jordan Johnson, spokeswoman with the Colorado Department of Human Services.
While CDHS can sanction counties when they do not comply with state and federal rules, it never has needed to do that, Johnson said.
In other states with decentralized systems, local social services offices are not allowed to hire people who don’t meet the minimum qualifications at all.
Minnesota has a merit system office that recruits and evaluates applicants for social services positions in nearly half of the state’s 87 counties, which generally have smaller human resources departments and lean toward rural, lower-populated areas.
“Working closely with participating counties, the merit system program office reviews all applications and refers only those that meet the minimum qualifications for the position,” said Laura Sengil, interim human resources director at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
“Counties handle background and reference checks for their final candidate or candidates.”
However, Minnesota recognizes that some counties struggle to hire qualified workers. To that end, the state works with the counties to “create a trainee plan for those that will qualify within three years.”
Trainee appointments are uncommon in Minnesota. Counties must submit a detailed training plan to the state, record the coursework the worker has completed and list all books and manuals they should read, among other requirements.
“We currently have two employees (out of 2,250) in trainee status: a child support officer and a social services supervisor,” Sengil said in February.
In Pennsylvania, most counties contract with the state’s Office of Administration for hiring, including certain administrator positions in social services roles, said spokeswoman Natalie Scott of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
That state office then only refers those who meet minimum experience and training requirements back to the hiring county, she said. If a county does hire someone who doesn’t meet the qualifications anyway, Pennsylvania can remove unqualified people from the post.
“If an unqualified employee is hired, the county could potentially lose their federal funding for that position,” Scott said.
As in North Carolina, California’s state Department of Social Services has no role in hiring local staff, said spokesman Scott Murray.
However, a difference in California occurs if workers don’t meet minimum qualifications. They can have their appointments voided under the state’s “unlawful appointment” process. North Carolina doesn’t have a way to remove an unqualified worker. Neither does Ohio nor New York, according to their state-level departments similar to DHHS in North Carolina.
In a statement responding to CPP questions earlier this month, DHHS said, “If a county chooses to hire a candidate who does not meet (Office of State Human Resources) qualifications, it is only when (DHHS) becomes aware of the situation that (DHHS) is able to provide additional supervision, assistance and structure through a supervision and support plan and/or other resources.”
When asked how many workers or directors did not meet minimum qualifications, DHHS could not answer the question.
“As (DHHS) neither qualifies nor makes hiring decisions for local DSS positions, we do not have the data you requested,” the agency responded.
Different systems in most states
Previous reporting by CPP found that most states do not have the decentralized system for social services, especially child protective services, seen in North Carolina and the other states discussed above.
In many cases, a central agency based in the state capital manages regional offices.
These systems may face their own challenges, but they avoid the issues of resource inequity and local agencies ignoring state law for hiring and other policies. Because the state funds these positions and sets salary levels, lower tax bases and local fiscal concerns don’t force uncompetitive salaries on poor areas.
In addition, state management can regionalize services across multiple counties, so that adequate numbers of social workers are in place to handle the population and physical area, but only one director might be needed to oversee that region, instead of one in each county.
Asked last year about how this works in Georgia, Tom Rawlings, then-director of the state’s Division of Children and Family Services, described a system in which the state listens closely to local feedback and adjusts resources to where they are needed most.
“We can work with that county to build up the resources they need,” Rawlings said. “We are able to shift some funds around.
“If we allowed each county to provide these services, you would have a much greater discrepancy than we already do. That discrepancy is reduced to some extent due to the fact that we have a statewide system.”
The problem of local agencies or individuals making up their own rules and ignoring state law and policy just isn’t allowed under that type of system, Rawlings said, because the state has hiring and firing authority.
“I would find it difficult to work in a county-based system, especially in Georgia — we have 159 counties,” Rawlings said.
“If every county is its own fiefdom, you don’t get a lot of consistency.”
NC ranks low for state funding of DSS
North Carolina’s problems aren’t just about systems or policies.
The state’s funding for child welfare was the lowest per child of the nine states that share North Carolina’s state-supervised, county-administered systems, according to a 2018 national survey of states by Child Trends, a nonprofit that uses data to compare outcomes in child well-being.
Child welfare funding per child in North Carolina was the lowest of the nine states for federal, state and local funds, the study showed, with the biggest gap at the state level.
The study showed peer states were paying 2.6 times more than North Carolina per child on child welfare.
North Carolina also spent the least compared with seven Southeastern states, with $52 in state funds spent per child, the Child Trends report said. South Carolina was the next lowest at $86 in state funds spent per child. Kentucky spent the most, $403 per child.
“We are currently looking at priorities and submitting funding requests to the governor around how we invest state dollars in child welfare services,” said Susan Osborne, assistant secretary for county operations in DHHS’ Division of Social Services, in a telephone interview last week.
North Carolina solutions?
Some states can take funding away from a county that hires an unqualified worker over someone who is qualified. DHHS told CPP it doesn’t “punish” counties for their hiring decisions.
And while the Office of State Human Resources tells counties which of their applicants meet minimum standards, it can only stand by if a county flouts the rule.
“OSHR is open to statutory changes that would give OSHR a clear, public escalation process if a county provides a DSS director’s application to OSHR for a determination, but then the county hires a DSS director who is not qualified,” agency spokesperson Jill Lucas said earlier this month.
At the General Assembly, Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, is a co-chair for the joint legislative oversight committee on general government. Cleveland said he is reluctant for the state to step in to resolve problems that should be tackled at the local level.
“We’ve had some troubles out west — some drastic problems,” he said. “Local people aren’t paying attention. Here we go again. Are we going to have the state dictate everything and the state take away everything the state doesn’t like? I’m not sure I like that idea.”
But when asked whether it’s a risk to hire unqualified workers, Cleveland said, “I think it’s totally stupid. Why would an employer hire somebody that is not qualified unless there’s something illegal going on?”