CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Each day, hundreds of social workers in our area have victories protecting children. It's a difficult job with high turnover and lots of emotional stress.
Sometimes the system they work within falls short.
WBTV asked The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees each county's Department of Social Services, for child fatality reports on DSS involved children. We also asked the state for the past two DHHS reviews of 14 county DSS agencies in our area.
From the reports, we found several cases where social workers missed family visits, filed inaccurate documents, failed to grasp the harm children faced, and had communication gaps with children.
The investigation was sparked, in part, by viewer concerns expressed to WBTV about the Union County DSS.
Last fall, DSS supervisor Wanda Larson was arrested and charged with child abuse after a boy in her care was found by a deputy chained outside with a dead chicken around his neck. Larson was fired from Union County DSS. Her partner, Dorian Harper, also faces child abuse charges.
We have also reported on many children in our area who have died while under DSS supervision or had recent cases with DSS.
There was two-year-old Addison Grace Lanham from Gaston County; one-year-old Marcus Davis Junior from Charlotte; ten-year-old Zahra Baker from Caldwell County; two year old Jeremiah Swafford from Cleveland County. There are many other children who never made the headlines.
The Department of Social Services was involved in all their short lives. Sometimes, more than once.
In the case of Addison Lanham, Gaston County DSS investigations found no evidence of abuse despite several reported complaints.
Addison is one of 44 children who died from 2006-2011 with a DSS case file. Sixteen DSS-involved children from Mecklenburg County died during that same time period.
WBTV also learned six counties fell short of all seven goals in their last DHHS reviews. Burke, Catawba, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Rowan and Union Counties all showed problems in each category when DHHS reviewed small samples of their case files.
"Context is really important with me," said Richard Matens with the Union County Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the county DSS.
His agency is under state scrutiny since the Larson case surfaced. The case sparked public outcry and the county has undergone an extensive evaluation from the state. A report on the state's findings is expected to be released soon.
Matens said their goal is to always keep families together when it's able to be safely done, and they do their best to protect children from harm.
We wanted to know whether children falling through the cracks is just part of doing business. Within the time period researched by WBTV, no children with DSS-involvement died in Union County. However, the agency is trying to correct other issues in light of the Larson case and state reviews.
"A lot of these cases we have, there may be cause for concern -- but we don't have hard evidence to take forward into a court case," said Matens. "A lot of times we have to make determinations on incomplete documentation or investigation."
Matens calls it a grey area which can be tough to navigate.
His county is not alone in having problems documented by DHHS.
In Catawba County, a child reported his mom slept with a gun and his father was making threats.
The gun issue was never addressed by the social worker, according to the last state review.
In Cleveland County, a grandmother's boyfriend slept nude with a child and it took six months to complete a DSS assessment.
In Mecklenburg, the state said 14 out of 30 sample cases needed better risk and safety assessment, and in one case, the report says it took four months to assign a new caseworker.
In Union County, Matens says he's working to change the culture.
He says documentation, screening, and quality assurance are improving.
However, he understands public trust is lacking.
"That is very difficult and it's going to be a long time," said Matens.
DHHS says the agency is constantly looking at ways to improve child welfare and address breakdowns.
WBTV repeatedly asked to schedule an interview with the DSS state director in Raleigh. As of this report, we are still waiting to schedule the interview.
The Department of Health & Human Services in Raleigh, which oversees every county DSS agency, provided this statement to WBTV:
"Children's health and safety is of the highest priority for DHHS and we work closely with local DSS offices to ensure that children and families are being served and protected. DHHS continuously looks to improve child welfare in North Carolina and address any breakdowns in our community support system. Through REAP, or Reaching for Excellence & Accountability in Practice, we are partnering with county agencies and community partners to take a quality-improvement approach to child welfare that is data-driven, results-oriented and tailored to the specific strengths and needs of each community."
Mecklenburg County DSS provided WBTV with a statement about the process and accountability involved in protecting children:
"Due to the confidential nature of DSS cases, the County is not at liberty to discuss details of child protection cases, however, I would state that the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services works hard every day to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, both children and adults, as well as providing financial assistance for our neighbors in need.
We have worked with the Mecklenburg County Child Fatality Prevention and Protection Team since its inception, which was established by state law in 1992, to identify systems gaps in the Child Protective Services community as well as implement now widely accepted child safety measures.
We continue to work to ensure the safety of all children in Mecklenburg County and encourage all residents to call our local child abuse and neglect report line at 704-336-CARE(2273) if they have reason to suspect a child is at risk. We have made many changes to our policies, procedures, staffing and structure at DSS to make sure that children and vulnerable adults are safe.