Foster NC Department of Health and Human Services
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services headquarters on the campus of the former Dorothea Dix state mental hospital in Raleigh. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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Workers from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services traveled to Bertie County on Monday to take over administration of child welfare services at Bertie County’s Department of Social Services.

Scant information was available Monday, three days after DHHS announced its plans to intervene. 

Bertie County DSS board member Greg Atkins told Carolina Public Press on Monday that he was reluctant to talk about the details. 

He said the deficiencies have to do with specific child welfare cases in the county, and community members in the county might be able to identify children or families with those details released.

Bertie County has about 19,000 residents. Bertie DSS handles a handful of abuse and neglect cases per year, according to data from the UNC School of Social Work’s Jordan Institute for Families.

Atkins said he was in a DSS board meeting Monday afternoon that was almost entirely closed to the public.

“Based on what I’ve heard, I haven’t seen anything that I would consider criminal,” said Atkins, who was sheriff in Bertie County for 12 years and is running for the position again.

When asked whether anyone has been fired over the issue, he had a two-word reply: “Not yet.”

As of Monday afternoon, Bertie County DSS Director Cindy Perry was employed there and not on any leave, paid or otherwise, according to the county’s Human Resources Department.

In a letter sent to the county on Friday, DHHS said the county “is not providing child welfare services in accordance with law, rule and policy; further, the failure to provide these services in accordance with law, rule and policy poses a substantial threat to the safety and welfare of children in Bertie County.”

DHHS workers have “conducted numerous on-site visits” with Bertie County since mid-April, the letter signed by NCDHHS Director Kody Kinsley says, and DHHS workers have been “fully embedded with BCDSS child welfare staff every day since May 9.”

Despite those interventions, “DSS has not made progress to address the systemic concerns with child welfare practice in the county.”

“Given the critical work performed by child welfare services, we agree that this temporary action is urgent and necessary, and we look forward to working together with NCDHHS to strengthen our work with vulnerable children and families,” County Manager Juan Vaughan II said in a Friday DHHS press release.

This is only the second time the state agency has used its authority to take over a DSS office. The first was in 2018 in Cherokee County after a social services office’s practice of separating parents and children without judicial authority became widely known.

In that instance, Cherokee County faces lawsuits from nearly two dozen people affected by the county’s policy. Its former director pleaded guilty to a felony last year, and the former county attorney faces nearly two dozen felony charges in a trial expected later this year.

Troubled history

While DHHS and Bertie County are keeping tight-lipped about specifics there, in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper last year, DSS board Chairwoman Alfreida Jordan and then-Vice Chairman John Hill lamented the county’s decision to not provide pay increases beyond cost of living for DSS workers.

As of last year, the department had lost nine workers who were “trained, certified and effective” to other DSS offices in the past four years, the pair’s letter published in the Daily Advance said. In 2021, Bertie County DSS had 48 employees.

Data from the UNC School of Government shows Bertie County paid a social worker II around $38,000 in 2019, which puts the county in the bottom third for social worker pay in the entire state for that year.

“We are not rewarding years of good, effective service,” Jordan and Hill wrote. “Bertie County has eliminated both merit raises and ‘salary progression.’ Anything besides cost-of-living increases must be specifically approved. In recent years, every single such request for any DSS employees has been refused.”

Bertie County is hardly alone with these concerns. The investigative series Dodging Standards, which CPP published in March, reported that the state has long known that counties paying less for social services workers will often lose them to neighbors that pay more, and sometimes significantly more.

Two directors in rural counties who talked with CPP for the series said they have had trouble keeping workers in their counties, which have traditionally paid far less than their neighbors. Pay disparities from county to county have persisted for decades in North Carolina.

In February, an auditor discovered paperwork irregularities at Bertie County DSS that ultimately did not have any questioned costs or affect the eligibility of residents for Medicaid, the Daily Advance reported.

DSS workers were to be retrained on how case files should be maintained and on “the importance of complete and accurate record-keeping,” the article stated.

In January, the Bertie County DSS board held a special meeting to discuss the director’s performance evaluation. Meeting minutes were not available online, and CPP has filed several records requests with state and county officials.

Earlier this year, Perry told Carolina Public Press she was qualified to be the director when she was hired. She and nine other directors in the northeast were queried for the CPP project Dodging Standards, which examined unqualified directors of social services.

Kate Martin

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

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