In North Carolina, reporting shows how patchwork child welfare system fails families

Published on
September 1, 2021

Each year in North Carolina, about 5,000 children are separated from their families. In doing so, social workers and others at Department of Social Services (DSS) offices must follow state and federal laws and policies to make sure the constitutional rights of parents and children are not violated. 

For instance, parents and children are entitled to attorneys who represent them in family court. Families also cannot be separated without a judge’s oversight. 

North Carolina is among a minority of states with this county-by-county system. In most states, a central authority is in charge of child welfare, and often has regional offices around the state. Our four-part series, “Patchwork Protection,” examined North Carolina’s child welfare system and was informed by a fairly simple data analysis that anyone can do if they have the right tech skills.

Each county office receives federal and state taxpayer funds, but also relies on funds from the local board of county commissioners. Some county-level DSS offices receive far less local taxpayer money than neighboring counties, depending on the politics of their area.

These choices at the local level result in varying pay, sometimes for counties right next to one another. These wide swings in pay cause workers to gravitate toward areas that pay more money. 

Lawmakers have long known of these wide geographic disparities in pay and in training. Legislative reports outlining these problems date back many years. Experienced workers gravitate to communities that pay well or have more opportunity for their families. Some of the county offices used additional measures to decide whether to investigate child welfare cases — a practice that means families receive different treatment depending on where they lived. In the middle of all of this is a computer system that has cost tens of millions of dollars and still doesn’t work.

After consistent reporting on child welfare over many years, Carolina Public Press had received more than a hundred tips from anguished parents and grandparents about the child welfare system in their counties.

We set out to verify these accounts and look for cases that had broken law or policy. Parents or guardians often do not understand the maze of laws and policies that govern child removals. The tips were often shocking and always emotional, as our reporting showed in the second of four stories.

Child welfare cases in North Carolina are confidential — unless the case winds its way to criminal or civil court. We relied heavily on court filings and some of our past reporting. Some parents also kept meticulous records. 

We also examined child welfare data on a public website, using a scraper in R, and a lot of help from Washington Post investigative data reporter Andrew Tran. I also included U.S. Census data on child populations in each county and calculated a removal rate by year for a decade.

Our analysis showed that many counties removed children at far higher rates than the state average, and some at far lower rates. One county had removed zero children in six of 10 years. Officials from Gates County did not return requests for comment.

These extremes pointed us toward counties to interview. Many of the anecdotes we had collected from anguished families over the years were also from some of the counties that spiked high or low on child removals. The data by itself was the start of many conversations with county leaders.

For instance, there was a spike in child removals in western North Carolina in 2015 — a peak of the opioid epidemic in western North Carolina. Buncombe County officials said they have since revised their policies on removing children from parents who use drugs, opting instead for more conversation and treatment.

“We are treating the parents,” said Rebecca Smith, director of social work for Buncombe County Health and Human Services. “We are asking parents about their lived experience that led to this moment. We are asking them about past trauma and their history. We are taking a trauma-informed approach.”

Sometimes even when workers do get training, their supervisors make up rules to circumvent the legal process and violate the constitutional rights of parents.

For more than two years, CPP has reported on problems at Cherokee County’s DSS office, where the director told social workers to use custody and visitation agreements — a document formatted to look like it had legal authority when it had none at all — to separate children from their parents without a judge’s oversight.

landmark federal civil trial against Cherokee County’s DSS office, the director and a former attorney resulted in a $4.6 million judgment for violating a family’s constitutional rights. Three people — two former workers and the former director who still works there — face three dozen felony and misdemeanor charges related to dozens of unlawful child removals over more than a decade. 

The testimony during the four-day trial showed Cherokee County workers faced some of the same problems legislative reports have revealed for many years: High turnover due to low pay and high stress. New staff who lacked training. 

According to trial testimony, DSS leaders pressured workers to use the custody and visitation agreements to separate families. Workers also said they were concerned for the best interest of the children when they used the unlawful document. Because it appeared to be a legal document, many parents did not question its authenticity. Child welfare laws and policies are hard to understand for someone who is not a professional in the field, let alone when a family is trying to navigate a crisis.

“They aren’t dealing with people who are doing wonderful,” said attorney Melissa Jackson, who argued on behalf of her client, Brian Hogan. “They are not dealing with people who have money and homes and cars. These people are at the worst point in their lives.”

Our reporting in our fourth story also included examples for reform from other states. Unlike North Carolina, the vast majority of states have one central child welfare authority. Georgia is among them. We interviewed Tom Rawlings, the director of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, who said officials who broke the law, as was done in Cherokee County, would not last long in Georgia.

“If every county is its own fiefdom, you don’t get a lot of consistency,” Rawlings said.