A former Guardian Ad Litem volunteer assigned to the custody case of 23-month-old boy who drowned in April is urging the county to conduct “an immediate, independent” investigation of child protective services under its Department of Social Services.
Rylan Ott was found in the edge of a pond near his family home outside of Carthage on April 14, about two hours after he was reported missing. His mother, Samantha Nacole Bryant, 30, of 252 Pond Branch Road, was indicted by a Moore County Grand Jury for involuntary manslaughter and felony child neglect. She remains jailed under a $200,000 secured bond.
Questions have been raised about why the child had not been taken away from Bryant because of past problems.
Pamela Reed, who lives in Whispering Pines, leveled a number of allegations against child protective services and the Department of Social Services during the public comment period at the beginning of the Moore County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday night.
“Change will only happen when we refuse to look the other way,” Reed said. “I pray you will not look the other way. I pray you will hold DSS accountable for the job they are doing. A child died on your watch, and dear commissioners, I cannot look the other way, nor should you.”
Reed, who said she had advocated for 18 children in 12 cases of abuse and neglect since 2012, said this boy “was still in diapers.”
“I have seen this county and I have seen this board come together to rally around injustice and demand for it to be rectified, and I was very proud to be a part of that,” she said. “And I am asking you to do that again.”
Reed said that when she agreed with a decision by child protective services (CPS), she was “treated professionally .. or indifferent at the very least.” But Reed said if she disagreed with one, the staff “would undermine by investigation” and that she was “treated with disdain and even lied to in those instances.”
Following a court hearing in December, Rylan and his sister were returned to their mother after living with foster parens at Fort Bragg.
“After the hearing, I was told the children were going back to trial placement because they (social workers) didn’t have the time to drive those kids between Fort Bragg and Moore County” for visitation, Reed told the commissioners. “A trial placement because of transportation issues would not have been OK with me if this had been my own child, and it was not OK with this child. I was shocked and sickened. Now that little boy is dead.”
She added that the trial placement was not recommended by the field worker “who knows the situation best and that CPS never once observing the parent and child, ever.”
“Ultimately, the judge has to rely on DSS and the Guardian Ad Litem to make a decision,” she said in a brief follow-up interview Thursday. “In this particular case, DSS provided misleading information.”
Reed told the commissioners she resigned in December “because I could no longer stomach the reckless behavior that I had observed.” She urged the commissioners to make this issue a priority.
“It the state of affairs at CPS does not get added to your agenda as a top priority, you are doing the children of this county a disservice,” she said.
Commissioners’ Chairman Nick Picerno questioned why Reed did not take her concerns to the Board of Social Services instead of resigning. He said that board oversees operation of the department, not the commissioners.
He turned to Commissioner Catherine Graham, who serves on the social services board, and asked if she was aware of the situation involving the child’s case.
“Not until the incident happened when the little boy died,” she replied. “I was not aware.”
Reed, who was not able to answer Picerno’s question during the meeting, said Thursday that a District Court judge she knows recommended she go directly to the commissioners since they are over DSS.
“I was really disappointed with his reaction,” Reed said of Picerno’s reaction. “Instead of acknowledging a toddler had drowned on DSS’ watch, that was his only question. That was very cold.”
The commissioners did not take any action or make any other comments. Social Services Director John Benton was in the audience, but did not speak. State privacy laws restrict comments social services officials are allowed to make about individual cases.
Also during the meeting, the commissioners:
* unanimously adopted a $131.7 million budget for fiscal year 2017 that includes small tax increases for emergency medical services and fire protection, as well as water and sewer rate hikes.
The general county property tax rate will remain at 46.5 cents for each $100 of property value. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
The county’s Advanced Life Support tax, which funds its paramedic-level ambulance system, will increase by a penny to 3 cents per each $100 of property value. All county residents, including those living in the 11 municipalities, pay that tax.
The rural fire service tax, paid only by residents living in unincorporated areas, will increase by a half cent to 8.5 cents per $100 valuation. Residents living in a town pay for fire protection through municipal property taxes.
Picerno said no elected official ever wants to raise a tax but that these taxes support two important services.
“These are special taxes for specific purposes,” he said. “They are not spent on anything on a whim. There is a specific reason for the tax. It cannot be transferred to other funds.”
Picerno said more paid firefighters are needed to provide an adequate level of protection for its residents. He added that the county had been able to maintain the ALS tax at 2 cents for a number of years, but a “$4 million mandate” from the federal government several years ago to switch to narrow band radios for emergency communications “wiped” out its reserves, which had been used to help cover the deficits.
Board Vice Chairman Otis Ritter, who has been involved in emergency services since the 1960s, said the cost of new ambulances and fire trucks “have gone completely out of reason.” They can cost several hundred thousand dollars apiece to replace.
“We had to do this,” he said of the tax increase.
Elsewhere in the budget, base monthly water rates will increase from $8 to $8.50, while the base monthly sewer rate would increase from the current $8 to $10.
The public schools will receive a $764,375 increase under the budget, about $500,000 less than the Board of Education requested. County Manager Wayne Vest said adding in the debt service on previous bond issues, the county is spending $34 million on public schools, which equates to 40 percent of the county’s property and sales tax revenues.
Sandhills Community College’s funding will remain at slightly more than $6 million as Vest proposed.
Picerno had suggested during the May 19 meeting that the board review its funding for the college over President John Dempsey’s refusal to enforce the state’s new transgender bathroom law, commonly referred to as HB2.
The college trustees unanimously adopted a statement during its meeting Monday to “make it clear” that Dempsey must “uphold” all laws, including HB2.
Picerno said at the end of the meeting during the time for commissioners’ comments that a cartoon in the June 5 edition of The Pilot — which he jokingly said depicted him as “a shrimpy” cowboy holding a bat standing front of a somewhat larger Dempsey who looked like the “Statue of Liberty — was “very funny.” But he took exception to being painted as the bad guy.
“So when you try to stand up for the rule of law, our esteemed newspaper wants to make you look like a cowboy out of control,” he said. “My comment was that they were not following the law. Everybody in America, the one thing we should hold dear is everyone should try to follow the law. You may not like it. You may not agree with it, and you may work to change it. But until it gets changed, that’s that law.”
* voted 3-1 to rezone 32 acres of land on Airport Road near Lakeview for a solar farm and to grant the required permit after the solar company revised plans to remove a sediment basin from adjoining property and agreed to make “all efforts” to replace any trees in the buffer that die to match the height of existing trees up to 7-feet tall.
Planning Director Debra Ensminger said that addresses the concerns raised following a public hearing April 19. The board deadlocked 2-2 at that meeting on whether to grant the rezoning and permit, with Ritter and Jerry Daeke voting in favor, and Picerno and Randy Saunders voting against. Commissioner Catherine Graham was absent that night because of illness.
Saunders, who was absent Tuesday night, and Picerno expressed reservations about whether Strata Solar’s buffering plan given problems with its solar farm on N.C. 211 in Eagle Springs. Company officials vowed to address those concerns and said the landscaping for the one on Airport Road would exceed the county’s requirements.
Robert Hodges III, who owns the adjoining land and opposed the rezoning in April, told the commissioners he is still against the solar farm even with the sediment basin removed from his property. He said it would hurt his property value and doubted he could sell it for “full price” with a 2,000-foot long chain link fence topped with barbwire beside it.
Graham, Ritter and Daeke voted in favor of the rezoning and the approving the permit. Picerno voted against, saying he is “highly skeptical” the solar energy company will follow through on the landscaping plan given its history.