Social services in NC may be in the hands of people who don’t meet minimum qualifications. Why and how it happens, and how other states avoid the problem.

Illustration by Brittain Peck / Carolina Public Press

Local social services agencies in North Carolina have vast authority over the lives of families, children, people with disabilities and others. State rules set clear minimal standards for social workers and social services directors, but state agencies can’t prevent counties from hiring unqualified people. In at least one case, an unqualified agency director later admitted to a work-related felony while workers in her office unlawfully separated children from their families. Counties struggle to recruit and retain qualified workers in part due to pay inequities between counties. But other states avoid these problems with different approaches.

Dodging Standards is a three-part investigative series from Carolina Public Press, being published daily beginning March 28, 2022. The series was made possible in part with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, a national foundation that supports the investigative reporting efforts of independent journalists and news organizations, and through the support of readers like you. You can support nonpartisan in-depth and investigative journalism in North Carolina from our nonprofit newsroom by becoming a member today.

follow our investigation

Cindy Palmer, former Cherokee County Department of Social Services Director, dabs her eyes in court Oct. 26, 2021, in Murphy after accepting a deal to plead guilty to obstruction of justice. Her lawyer, Hart Miles, addresses the court. Photo courtesy of NC Courts.

NC law setting minimum standards for DSS hires goes unenforced

One county faces millions in liability due to actions under director hired without meeting qualifications, despite having at least one applicant who met standards. State agencies say they can’t do anything to stop this.

Granville County Department of Social Services Director Adonica Hampton says rural counties like hers struggle to recruit and retain qualified social workers because of better pay in bigger nearby counties. Alicia Carter / Carolina Public Press

NC counties struggle to find qualified DSS workers

Uneven resources contribute to lower pay for social services workers and directors in many rural counties, sometimes forcing them to hire unqualified people when no one else applies.

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

Most other states avoid hiring issues that plague NC DSS agencies

Some states prevent, remove or closely supervise unqualified supervisors in counties. Most states avoid the issue through state-managed social services. NC lags behind other decentralized states in DSS funding.

Made with Flourish

Made with Flourish


This series is produced by the news team of Carolina Public Press
Reporting by Kate Martin
Photos by Alicia Carter, Colby Rabon and Frank Taylor
Illustration by Brittain Peck
Graphics by Anna Deen
Photo and Graphics Editing by Laura Lee
Project Editing by Frank Taylor

Previous stories Related to this topic