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Senators introduce needed child welfare reform

The child welfare system is a last resort for children who are at risk of serious injury, trauma, or even death. As a society, we have a moral obligation to provide these children with a safe environment where they can begin to recover from their trauma. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s child welfare system is structurally and systemically inadequate to ensure the safety of children who come into its care and to promote their long-term health and recovery.

That’s why NC Child supports new legislation introduced by Senators Tamara Barringer, Kathy Harrington, and Tommy Tucker that would initiate a collaborative and deliberate process to transform North Carolina’s child welfare system, so that it can fulfill its tremendous responsibility to our state’s children.

North Carolina’s child welfare system is failing.

In 2015, the federal government conducted a periodic review of North Carolina’s child welfare system, measuring seven child welfare outcomes and seven systemic factors. North Carolina failed in all 14 areas. In 2016, the Public Consulting Group (PCG), a private firm, completed a legislatively mandated evaluation of North Carolina’s child welfare system, which also revealed pervasive systemic problems with workforce, practice, oversight, and administration.

Statewide leadership, accountability, and standardization are needed to get NC on track.

North Carolina’s child welfare system needs a unifying, 21st century vision and plan and an effective leadership team with the authority to enforce accountability for meeting state and federal requirements. Currently, the state DSS does not have the capacity to implement broad strategic direction that drives the implementation of child welfare services statewide or the authority to enforce it across 100 county DSS agencies.

There are 100 different counties experimenting with different strategies for improving child welfare practice and outcomes.Without a statewide practice framework or model, North Carolina is unable to meet the demands of modern child welfare practice, which has become increasingly challenging, complex, and resource-intensive. While there are some collaborative efforts among counties and between the state DSS and counties, they are limited in their effectiveness because there is neither a framework nor an effective infrastructure to scale up innovative practice and policy.

North Carolina’s child welfare system is also plagued by a lack of a statewide case management system for tracking children who enter the child welfare system and an inadequate workforce. Many county agencies rely on paper records, using different data systems that do not communicate with each other and do not provide “real time” data on the children in their care.  Without a statewide, modernized case management system, we can’t track children across county lines, putting them at high risk of abuse and neglect. Without “real-time” data about children in foster care, we can’t support positive educational, health, and social-emotional outcomes.

With regards to the child welfare workforce, caseloads for social workers are too high, resulting in burnout and ineffective practice; there is a high rate of turnover among caseworkers, leading to further increased caseloads and frequent case transfers; and, caseworkers and supervisors often do not have the training and skills necessary to effectively intervene in and manage complex situations with extremely vulnerable children.

Senate Bill 594, Family/Child Protection and Accountability Act, would begin to address these issues by:

  • consolidating county DSS agencies into no more than 30 regions by 2022 to standardize practice and reduce inter-county disparities in service and workforce;
  • giving the state greater authority to enforce performance standards;
  • bringing in a third party to evaluate and reform the child welfare system, including the creation of a statewide practice model;
  • creating a council to align children’s services across government agencies;
  • reducing the time to permanency for children in the child welfare system.

This is just the start of what will be a lengthy and difficult process. The good news is that the bill sponsors have set up a process that is both collaborative and deliberate, and is designed to minimize top-down decisions that create unintended consequences. The “Regionalization Working Group” and the “Child Well-Being Transformation Council,” the bodies responsible for developing and overseeing many of the bill’s major reforms, include local and state-level stakeholders from a diverse cross-section of agencies. These collaborations will spend several years working through the practical and financial challenges that accompany transformational change.

While implementing these changes will not be easy, the situation at hand demands bold action. We are encouraged that elected officials are taking steps to assure the safety of our children, and we believe the Family/Child Protection and Accountability Act is a solid first step.

Michelle Hughes

Michelle Hughes is the executive director of NC Child and has worked in the field of children’s advocacy for almost 20 years in North Carolina.