Union County DSS continues overhaul in wake of child abuse case

abell@charlotteobserver.comMay 17, 2014 

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Richard Matens, executive director of Union County Human Services, is leading the agency as it reforms itself. A half year after authorities found a boy handcuffed to a porch with a dead chicken around his neck, and his guardian, a Union County DSS supervisor was arrested on child abuse charges, there have been changes big and small at the agency at the center of the controversy.

JOHN D. SIMMONS — jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Six months ago, Union County’s Division of Social Services was thrust into the international spotlight after the arrest of one of its supervisors. An 11-year-old boy in her care was found handcuffed to her porch with a dead chicken around his neck.

The headlines have receded and the felony child abuse case against the now-fired supervisor Wanda Larson, and longtime boyfriend Dorian Harper, works through the court system.

In the half year following the mid-November arrests, the DSS has undergone fundamental changes in how it operates, emphasizing a more collaborative approach and more accountability.

It also has seen more turnover than any other county department during that time, accounting for one-third of all personnel moves. And it converted some one-time critics.

But the agency still has not completely restored public trust, county officials acknowledge.

“I hope (that trust) is better than it was in November,” said county Commissioner Jonathan Thomas. “Trust must be earned, and it will take time to earn it back completely.”

Richard Matens agreed. He is leading the division’s transformation as executive director of the county Human Services Department, which includes DSS.

The crisis hit just months into Matens’ tenure leading the new department, which included DSS and Health. Previously, they operated separately with DSS running through several directors and interim directors over the past few years.

Matens and his new DSS director, Rae Alepa, had just begun looking at changes for DSS when Larson was arrested. “It was an opportunity for us to get better as an agency, knowing that we’ve had instability for the past 4 1/2 years,” Matens said.

State involvement

Matens got the call about Larson on a Friday. On Monday morning, he asked the state to review the department’s operations.

The state’s work expanded to include Gaston County, which, like Union, had placed foster children in the Harper-Larson home over the years. In early March, the state issued a report detailing concerns and recommendations, and told the counties to develop a plan for enacting changes.

In Union, the state found issues with documenting how child abuse cases are initially handled and a lack of reasonable effort to get all information needed in certain cases.

DSS reassigned two social workers to the child protective services’ intake unit, which doubled its capacity. Either Matens or Alepa now review and approve foster care cases where children are being adopted and parental rights are being relinquished.

And DSS created the position of quality assurance coordinator, a job that Matens emphasized is not the office police.

Rather, the coordinator handles random audits of child protective services, foster care and adoption work to provide accountability throughout the department.

If there is a problem with a case, Matens said, employees are now encouraged to come to a group of their colleagues to look for solutions.

The idea, he said, is to have a team approach to problem solving. “People can voice concerns without fear of retribution,” he said.

And DSS staffers continue to meet with state experts to coordinate practices as they finalizes their plan for the state.

Lots of turnover

Amid the changes came substantial turnover. Three people were fired, including two program administrators.

In the termination letter to one management team member, Alepa wrote: “You are not fully supportive of the mandated changes taking place in our agency and indifferent to the effort required of core management to provide the leadership and direction necessary to transform our services and support our staff in meeting challenges.”

Another 11 people resigned or were part-timers whose services were no longer needed, while eight others retired since November. All of the personnel changes represent a 10 percent turnover rate in the 230-person agency.

Matens encouraged people who didn’t like the changes to find somewhere else to work.

“Because the expectations are clear, the ones who stayed are happier,” he said. “The ones who were resistant to change have left.”

More moves

Another major change came in January, when county commissioners voted to abolish a human services board that helped oversee DSS and shifted its oversight responsibility to the commissioners. The move allowed commissioners to take responsibility for cleaning up DSS.

Other changes include:

•  More thorough employee background and reference checks. Larson had surrendered a nursing license in 1990 in Alaska for undisclosed “unprofessional conduct” reasons. But when Union County hired her in 2003, Matens said it had no reason to inquire about a license that was not related to her DSS job.

•  Recruitment for any supervisory jobs will include outside candidates in addition to internal ones.

•  The DSS attorney is part of staff meetings on a regular basis now.

•  A new software system allows DSS to better document reports.

•  DSS hired a consultant for about $28,000 to help implement changes and assist in developing its report to the state.

•  DSS is increasing in-house training and strengthening conflict of interest rules.

•  Within the next couple months, child protective services will have a forensic unit to focus on sex abuse and other criminal cases.

Changing minds

Even some of the department’s more vocal critics approve of the changes.

Among those is Jeff Gerber, founder of the Justice for All Coalition, which pushes for laws protecting children. In December, he described DSS as “a mess.”

But now Gerber said he is pleased with the emphasis on additional oversight and training, and hopes other counties make similar changes.

Other criticism had come from state Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union. who in January urged the state to run the DSS.

But last week, Tucker said he recently visited the agency and was impressed with what he called a culture change. “After such a horrific incident, they have a ways to go to regain the public’s trust,” Tucker said. But, he added, they are going in the right direction.

Restoring public trust is a slow process, Matens said.

“People will always have that event in their mind,” he said. “But we’ve made great strides in our practices and policies.”

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell

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