- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2016

CARTHAGE, N.C. (AP) - Susan Reeves had been a Moore County Child Protective Services case manager for about five years when she decided she couldn’t take it any longer.

Reeves said a doctor had told her she was suffering from severe anxiety brought on by the stress of her job with the Department of Social Services.

Reeves said she resigned in January 2015, the last straw coming when a supervisor took written disciplinary action against her for making a phone call in the office before 10 a.m.

Reeves said she had no choice but to violate the policy. A client had threatened to commit suicide and was in the hospital.

Reeves walked away from the job a short time later.

Reeves was among nine former Moore County Child Protective Services workers interviewed by the Fayetteville Observer after 23-month-old Rylan Ott drowned in April.

Four months earlier, a judge had given custody of the toddler back to his mother, despite pleadings against reunification from the boy’s temporary parents and a volunteer with Guardian Ad Litem, who said she thought the mother remained unfit.

The former social workers all complained of poor working conditions. A couple of them said they were ordered to falsify documents. Reeves and others said their supervisors were uncaring and many of their policies were unfair. All said they had so many cases to handle that their jobs were nearly impossible.

John L. Benton, the director of the county’s Department of Social Services, acknowledged problems with high caseloads and turnover, especially in 2015, but he said those problems are not unique to Moore County. He said they are endemic to Child Protective Services offices throughout the state.

Moore County officials won’t talk about the handling of Rylan’s case.

Much of what is known comes from the Moore County Sheriff’s Office and court documents, which show that Rylan’s mother, Samantha Nacole Bryant, was charged on Oct. 25 with child abuse, resisting arrest and assault on a government official.

Other information comes from former Moore County child welfare workers, from Mike and Amanda Mills.

Amanda Mills said the social worker originally assigned to the case handed it off to another social worker on Nov. 3, nine days after Bryant’s arrest.

Moore County had hired that social worker on Sept. 14, about seven weeks before she got Rylan’s case.

Amanda Mills said she was told that the social worker joined the case because her husband was a soldier on Fort Bragg, where the Millses live, and she would have easier access to the Army post to visit Rylan and his kinship parents.

But another possible explanation is turnover. In 2015, the state records show, 17 of 21 social workers left Moore County Child Protective Services - a turnover rate of 81 percent. Of the 17 who left, 13 resigned and one was fired.

Turnover is a longstanding problem throughout North Carolina, one that appears to be getting worse.

The new report says the state’s turnover rate for child welfare workers increased from 22 percent in 2013 to 28 percent the following year.

The more turnover, the more likely social workers are to get heavier caseloads and face burnout.

The state Division of Social Services Family Services Manual calls for child welfare investigators to oversee no more than 10 families’ cases at one time.

Most of the former social workers interviewed for this story said they routinely carried between 20 and 25 cases at a time. Benton acknowledged that caseloads had grown to about double the state’s standard in 2015, when so many workers left.

The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities spelled out the stresses of the job in a final federal report published this year.

“CPS professionals have exceedingly difficult jobs and provide a critical public safety service,” the report says. “They are often overworked and highly stressed. The commission heard from Child Protective Services workers and supervisors about high caseloads, frequent turnover, and not enough time to adequately engage families.

Among other criticisms, the report says caseloads and turnover among Child Protective Services workers in North Carolina are too large, and state funding for salaries and services are too low.

North Carolina is among only a few states that oversee their child welfare offices and have individual counties administer them, said Michelle Hughes, executive director of N.C. Child, an advocacy group that works statewide to ensure the health and safety of children.

Another problem, Hughes said, is that most county social services offices continue to rely on paper records, and communication among them suffers as a result. If a family involved in Child Protective Services in one county moves to another county, the Department of Social Services in the new county of residency may never become aware of the family’s history, Hughes said.

Among its recommendations, the report says the state and counties should work together to develop a unified practice statewide in conjunction with NC FAST, a computer system that the state began using in 2012 to speed up the certification process for people receiving public assistance.

Benton is pleased with the progress made in the nearly 10 years he has been in charge here.

“I know we do a good job,” he said. “I believe we provide the tools necessary for social workers to succeed. There’s a focus on training, and there is a focus on accountability.”

At least nine of his former social workers don’t see it the same way.


Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, https://www.fayobserver.com

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