By Leslee Kulba- Buncombe County engaged in a different type of damage control at last Tuesday’s meeting. Now that the county is under new management, meetings typically include the introduction and adoption of policies with increased checks and balances. This time, Social Work Services Director Tammy Shook wanted to rebut statements made from the stand during public comment. No reference was made to who had said what and when. Shook, appearing graciously disappointed, merely reviewed policy.
Often quoting directly so as not to speak amiss, Shook first explained how federal money is given to the state to disburse to counties for administering programs in accordance with federal procedures. Buncombe County is one of ten counties that opted to have extra monitoring by the federal government. Shook said the county volunteered for the oversight because of its commitment to continual improvement.
The state has visited the county three times in the last eighteen months to monitor Shook’s department. The assessors concluded the department was run well. Things were not perfect, but Shook said they weren’t in any jurisdiction, because “child welfare is a constantly growing, evolving, and changing practice.” The county has, in addition, set up an in-house quality assurance team that operates independently of social workers and uses the same assessment tools as the state and federal government.
Shook explained how children are taken into the county’s social services programs. She said everybody is mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect to their local agency. When reports are received, the allegations are reviewed to determine if they rise to the level of statutory definitions of abuse or neglect. People who report suspected abuse are entitled to be told whether or not their report was accepted and, eventually, how the case is resolved.
If a report warrants action, it will be turned over to criminal investigators if it is serious; otherwise, the situation will be examined by social workers. Assessors are given forty days to complete an investigation. They visit family members in their homes, and reach out to extended family members and friends to determine if the incident was isolated or systemic.
If the social workers decide the child is not in imminent danger, they will work with the family to develop a safety plan. They will eliminate risks and connect family members with applicable government programs. If at any time during the next six months the child appears to be at-risk, Social Services will try to find a grandma or aunt who can care for the child while the parents get help. If this option is not available, the county could go to court to order the parents to “engage in services,” and/or take custody of the child.
Shook said the county makes every effort to keep children with their biological parents. It has even set up four programs for this, including opportunities for pregnant ladies with substance abuse problems to enter detox and receive mentoring. Western Carolina Rescue Mission now offers fourteen units for mothers and children to stay together under supervised recovery.
Currently, there are 347 children in Buncombe County foster care. Shook gave two reasons for a recent increase: (1) new legislation extending the program to children aged 18-21, and (2) the opioid epidemic. She said over the last two years, 70-percent of children entering the county’s foster care program were admitted because a parent had a “drug issue.” 93 children aged 0-2 are now in foster care, many born with drug dependencies.
While county leadership has, in the past, expressed excitement about federal funding multiplying in the community, Shook wanted to assure members of the public the county was not profiting off foster care and adoptions. She said the county has currently budgeted about $3.5 million for foster care. The federal government pays half the amount, the state pays a quarter, and the county is on the hook for $905,000. On top of that, the county spends $630,000 for costs related to foster care, like transportation, supervised visitation, parenting coaches, reimbursements for families taking children in emergency situations, and unsubsidized medical care.
Addiitonally, the county has budgeted over $800,000 for adoption assistance this year. Often, children removed from families are victims of trauma, with extensive medical, mental health, and/or educational needs. The state and the county share costs for remediation. While the county receives federal funding for “enhancing and expanding” its adoption programs, funds can only cover recruitment programs, training, financial aid, and legal assistance for adopting families.
“I can’t even put into words the feelings I get when people accuse people on the front lines of protecting children, that they have an agenda or they’re making money; and so for that, I’m sorry you had to go through this explanation,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. She added few counties manage foster care and adoptions as well as Buncombe.