The Transylvania Times -

DSS Child Protective Services Working On Trust


February 12, 2018

In October of last year, Darrell Renfroe was appointed director of Transylvania County Social Services (DSS).

During the same month, Renfroe, who had been interim director since August before his full-time appointment, sent a memo to County Manager Jaime Laughter. In the memo, Renfroe noted that Child Protective Services (CPS) — a DSS section — had in the past few years not “consistently made best practice decisions and at times children (had) been left at risk.”

“As a result of this,” he went on to say in the memo, “there is a lack of trust from community partner agencies regarding the decisions we make and the services we provide.”

When child abuse or neglect is suspected, CPS attempts to assess whether the abuse or neglect is true. If a crime has been committed, CPS makes a referral to law enforcement to investigate. If CPS determines a child has been abused or neglected by a parent or caretaker, DSS offers in-home services to the family to correct the situation, so the child may remain safely at home.

The local DSS has two CPS supervisors, with one handling potential cases, investigations and in-home service; and the other overseeing foster care, foster care licensing and adoption.

Renfroe’s memo was background to his request for the county to hire a community social services assistant to provide transportation services for foster care and children’s services, as well as to supervise family visits with foster children.

Renfroe said that for the past three years DSS’s foster care caseload had increased from 34 foster children to 59.

County commissioners approved the request.

Since August of last year, Renfroe said in the memo, he, Laughter, CPS supervisors, the county attorney and the DSS Board chair had met weekly to address issues and problems in the section.

Specifically, those issues and problems were identified in 2015 after a visit from the state.

In July 2015, over a four-day period, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Social Services and local DSS staff members conducted an on-site review and evaluation of cases overseen by CPS.

After the 2015 review/evaluation, the state cited CPS for not being in compliance with all mandatory regulations and time frames, while also noting a “lack of training” for employees.

In subsequent state reviews, CPS has continued to not fully meet all the regulations and time frames.

For a few days recently, state officials returned to conduct its latest review of foster care cases.

“This review will let us know in what areas we have improved and in what areas we need to make improvements in regards to adhering to those policies and procedures,” Renfroe said when contacted for comment. “It will be a couple of months before we receive the final review report and that will give us valuable information on where we must improve, as well as areas we are meeting those expectations.”

County Response

Unlike most county departments, DSS does not report to the county manager or county commissioners. The local appointed DSS Board has oversight of the department. Those who work at DSS are also considered state employees and are governed slightly different than other county staff.

When contacted for comment, Laughter said the county’s children are a “top priority” for her

“I think if we are a great place to be a child, we are a great place indeed,” she said. “They don’t vote, and they are the most vulnerable of our citizens.”

She said the state’s laws and policies “tightly govern” how DSS employees handle cases.

“Failure to follow those laws and policies means that when a case goes to court it is imperative that those regulations are followed, including time frames,” Laughter said. “A technicality on behalf of DSS to not meet a time frame can result in a case being dismissed or lost. The heart wrenching factor that sentence fails to capture is that the ‘case’ is our children we are trying to protect through DSS, and we can’t do that if we lose in court or have a case dismissed. Taking a risk that failing to follow those procedures and laws is risking a child…it can’t be how CPS operates.”

DSS has seen a lot of change since the 2015 report, Laughter said, and since Commissioner Page Lemel raised concerns about the continuance of DSS cases in court.

The first step to correct that issue was the county hiring an in-house counsel instead of contracting attorney services.

Misti Bass, who has DSS attorney experience, was hired last April. The second step, Laughter said was building the “right CPS team,” noting Renfroe’s hiring and that of CPS Supervisor Katherine Cox’s this past summer.

“They both bring solid experience leading teams and they know how to establish process improvement, training and communication that will assure that each member of their (newly) fully staffed CPS unit will have the tools and support they need to make sure that DSS is abiding by those laws and regulations that are so critical in a successful case,” Laugher said. “I can confidently say that they know how things are required to work under the Child Welfare Laws our state requires, and they both have hearts for children and our community’s future that it takes to be successful with CPS.”

She said as an “outside observer” she’s had the opportunity to work with Renfroe and believes things are improving in CPS under his leadership.

“One of the challenges that DSS will always face is that the laws around confidentiality make it very difficult to explain cases and why actions are taken on a particular case except to cite the laws and policies at a higher level,” Laughter said. “It is following those laws that make a strong case even if it doesn’t sit right with an outside observer. In order to be successful in protecting the child for any case, DSS has to work within those laws and regulations, whether it is meeting a time frame or following the right progression of steps.

“Since that report there have been a lot of changes at DSS. From a management perspective, I think that sometimes it takes those radical changes to re-establish and correct, but in this case it couldn’t be for a more important purpose.”

Building Trust

Renfroe has worked in the social work field for 37 years between roles in county and state government. Before coming to Transylvania County, Renfroe worked as the local support manager for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. He provided management support, work support strategies and consulting to DSS directors in 50 Western counties in the state and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Renfroe said that “building trust” among community partners takes “time and consistency.”

“The nature of confidentiality for Social Service departments makes it very challenging for community partners to trust and to understand the heavily regulated processes that drive DSS decisions,” he said. “The (Child Welfare) supervisors and I have been working very hard to address trust issues within the community by taking time to both hear concerns and try to educate how state law and policy dictate how we operate.”

In November, the DSS held a community meeting entitled “Let the Healing Began” in the library’s Rogow Room, with more than 60 community partners in attendance.

The community partners included representatives from local schools, The Children’s Center of Transylvania County, The Family Place of Transylvania County, SAFE, The Sharing House, childcare centers and guardian ad litem volunteers

“That meeting was a success, but this was only the first step in the process of mutual understanding,” Renfroe said.

A second community meeting has been scheduled for April 20, where DSS will continue talking about the issues and look for ways that the community partners and DSS can better collaborate.

“I have been told by numerous community partners that they feel things are going much better and that DSS is heading in the right direction to facilitate a better working relationship,” Renfroe said. “The children’s services supervisors and I are addressing issues as they arise and we regularly meet with the social workers to ensure they are following state mandates and policies. Unfortunately, there are times where what we must do to be in compliance with state law is in conflict with what our community partners feel is best. In those cases, it is our responsibility to listen, so we are aware of any information we may not already have and to work to share as much as we can about why we make the decisions we do to promote understanding. We are holding social workers accountable while working to foster understanding and, as a result, improvements are happening.”

When contacted for comment, Kathie Williams, the director of The Children’s Center, said she was “very excited” to be working with Renfroe and other DSS social workers.

“I have seen a definite increase in the interest of collaboration between our agencies and feel that the more we work together the more we can create a positive outcome for children in Transylvania County,” Williams said.

The Children’s Center is a nonprofit aimed at helping children who are at-risk or are victims of neglect and abuse.

Erin Andrews, The Family Place’s executive director, echoed William’s comments and said Renfroe has been a “welcome addition” to DSS.

“Renfroe has been open to hearing community concerns and taken steps to start addressing these concerns,” she said.

The Family Place is a nonprofit that provides learning opportunities to support local families.

Andrews noted the community meetings and the effort to better understand DSS policies and procedures.

“We recognize that the jobs the social workers do can be extremely difficult,” Andrews said. “Ultimately, we all want to help families in our county by working together.”


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