Officials with the Durham County Department of Social Services will conduct an investigation into how Moore County handled the case of a 23-month-old boy who drowned in April, four months after being returned to his mother.
Moore County Social Services Director John Benton said Wednesday afternoon following a meeting of the Board of Social Services in Carthage that they have turned over all of their files to the Durham County agency. He said that is standard practice in North Carolina to have an outside agency conduct a review, one that does not have interaction with Moore County.
Board member and County Commissioner Catherine Graham and Board Chairwoman Katie Dunlap said they will be as forthcoming as they can when the investigation is completed, though they will be limited in what they can say because of state confidentiality laws.
“We will find a way to make it public,” Dunlap said after the meeting ended. “We are all here for the same reason. Transparency is important.”
Graham added, “The main thing is to get to the bottom of this. If the board is not satisfied, we will ask for another one (outside investigation).”
Graham said the state Department of Heath and Human Services will also look into the matter in the course of conducting an already scheduled audit of the department in July, as well as a state child fatality committee of which she is a member.
Benton said he welcomed the investigation if it leads to better protection of children.
“At the end of the day, we want to do everything possible to protect children,” he said after the meeting ended. “If we can do anything to enhance that, we will.”
Pamela Reed, the former Guardian Ad Litem who had been assigned to the Rylan Ott case and went public with her concerns about it, was skeptical of the investigation by another DSS.
“That’s like me saying to my cousin, ‘hey come take a look at this and tell me what you think,’” she said in follow-up interview Thursday afternoon. “I am skeptical of whether a sister agency do a truly independent investigation.”
Reed said Graham’s comment that if the board is not satisfied it will ask for another investigation “gives me hope.”
Rylan was found dead in the edge of a pond near his family home outside of Carthage on April 14. A judge returned him to his mother — against the recommendation of a social worker — in December. His mother, Samantha Nacole Bryant, 30, of 252 Pond Branch Road, was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and felony child abuse severe bodily injury. She remains jailed under a $200,000 secured bond.
The case was thrust into the public limelight after Reed and other current and former social workers went public with allegations about mismanagement, mainly directed at supervisors, in Child Protective Services (CPS).
Reed, Rylan’s former foster mom from Fort Bragg, a former county social worker and another current foster parent, addressed the board Wednesday with a multitude of allegations about problems in the department during the meeting at the DSS offices in the Carriage Oaks facility in Carthage.
The board voted at the outset of the meeting to add a public-comment period to the agenda using the same rules as the Board of Commissioners, which limit each person to three minutes — something that upset the speakers. Reed had asked ahead of time to be on the agenda, so she was not under a time limit.
“That just seems a little insensitive,” Reed said of limiting speakers’ time “given what has transpired.”
Several speakers expressed hope that Rylan’s death was not in vain.
“My heart hurts, and it is shattered over this preventable, tragic death of precious Rylan,” said Amanda Mills, of Fort Bragg, who was the child’s kinship foster mother from Nov. 3 until Dec. 18. “But because of our system, the very system that should have protected him didn’t, he didn’t ever get a chance to celebrate his second birthday.
“God allows things to happen for a reason, and I just hope and pray that the reason God chose to take this little boy is to get changes made for our system, our failure to protect him. I just hope and pray something will be done so that no other child suffers, that no other family member, no other foster parent, no other community will have mourn because our system failed to protect our children.”
Mills, whose husband is in the Army and has three daughters, said their family almost immediately felt “uncomfortable” when Bryant would come to their home to visit her son and 13-year-old daughter. She told the board that Bryant once threatened suicide if she could not get Rylan back and that she cursed at her daughter.
She said all of that was shared with the case worker for Moore County. On Dec. 4, the Mills family asked that Bryant no longer be able to visit “because we didn’t feel safe with her in our home” and that it was causing “so much distress and turmoil” for the daughter.
Mills said the social worker was supposed to make arrangements to come pick up the children and bring them to the DSS office in Carthage for visits and then take them back home. But she said that never happened. She said the worker never observed any visits between Dec. 4 and 18, when Ott was returned to his mother. The girl was taken to a therapeutic foster home.
“If someone from DSS came to observe they would have likely seen a hostile behavior,” she told the board.
Reed said later in her presentation, “DSS put the cart before the horse, as they focused on resources instead of the child’s welfare and got the judge to endorse it.”
Mills said she was unable to attend a court hearing Dec. 17 in the case. She her husband went, but was not allowed to speak because of objections by attorney’s for Bryant and DSS. She said the department was pushing for reunification because it was too costly and time consuming to take the children back and forth for visits.
“Rylan is dead,” she said. “Something needs to change.”
Reed, who leveled a number of allegations about problems in CPS during the county commissioners’ June 7 meeting, said in presentation to the board that she decided to come forward “to shed light on how DSS has mismanaged themselves and their case workers to the point of creating an unsafe environment for the very children they are tasked with protecting.”
As she did at the commissioners’ meeting, Reed called for the social services board to “an immediate and independent investigation of the department.
She was assigned to Rylan’s case last November and resigned out of disgust on Dec. 29 over the way Rylan’s case was handled.
“As I observed CPS being dangerously reckless with the safety of these children, I could not sit by and suffer the injustice of what was happening,” she said. “There were numerous red flags with this case.”
Reed said CPS failed to report problems and concerns she and the Millses raised about Bryant with the judge. She said that the case worker told her “off the record” that it was not her recommendation to return the boy to his mother, but that she was “overruled by a supervisor” because it was too time-consuming to transport the children back and forth.
“They put a 19-month-old baby with an unproven mother because they didn’t feel they had the time to transport the children,” she said.
She said Rylan’s case “brings to light broader systemic failures of this office. It sheds light on the unethical way CPS is conducting business.”
Reed, who has advocated for 18 children in 12 cases of neglect and abuse since 2012, said that when she agreed with recommendations of the agency she was treated “if not unprofessionally, with indifference.” But when she disagreed with them, she said she was treated “with disdain and lied to.”
“They attempted to undermine my investigation every step of the way,” Reed said, which included ignoring requests for information until she got a Guardian Ad Litem supervisor involved.
Tracy Trepeyk, whose first adopted foster child is now 16 and was with her Wednesday art the meeting, also told the board of problems she had with CPS with two other foster children. She said when they raised concerns, “we were told we were not good.”
She said that with her most recent foster child, she often had to supervise visits with the biological parents herself since the social worker was not around.
“I went to the supervisors and nothing ever happened,” she said.
Reed said foster parents who raised questions or concerns were “labeled as troublemakers.”
She said the problems with mismanagement have led to an 80 percent turnover rate, which has worsened the problem.
“I have seen honest, ethical social workers come and go through a revolving door,” she said. “They were ordered to falsify documents by uncaring supervisors.”
Susan Reeve, who worked as a case manager for the department for five years and now works for the state, made similar allegations. She said she has 25 years of experience in the field.
“I could not do my job as I needed to because of the restrictions supervisors placed on the workers here at DSS,” she told the board. “CPS is a very stressful, unappreciated job as most of you know. To see the way these kids are treated in their home … is enough the make any adult sick.”
She said workers typically had to handle 20 to 25 case at a time, more than double what the state recommends. When they were at odds with a supervisor, it made things even worse.
Reed said she is not “unsympathetic” to the case workers who have a difficult and stressful job. But said she does not feel that way about supervisors who “override” their decisions.
She said if that had not happened in Rylan’s case, “he would still be here.”
She added that with budget cuts, the turnover is costing the department even more money to recruit and train new social workers.
“Budgets are smaller, corners get cut,” she said. “That doesn’t make it right. At what point does this agency hold itself accountable. I pray Rylan’s death will not go unnoticed. I pray that his short life will matter and be a catalyst for change. …. I am happy to talk with any of you because something has to change.”
Dunlap explained earlier in the meeting that the board could not comment on any specific cases or on personnel.
“We have heard you,” she said after Reed finished speaking. “We appreciate your concerns.”
Graham also thanked the speakers and praised the work done by Guardian Ad Litem volunteers, noting that there is a shortage of them statewide.
“You are the boots on the ground for DSS in North Carolina,” she said. “We want you to know we are listening. We’ll do our best. All institutions are vulnerable. Is there a better way to do things? Were mistakes made? Confidentiality laws prevent us from saying a lot. It is about that child, it is not about the Guardian Ad Litem, the foster parent … It is about children. We are all on the same page. We all want what is best for the kids in Moore County.”
Dunlap said the department has already implemented changes it hopes will ease problems with the high turnover, which were being put in place before this incident. She said that includes having smaller caseloads for new social workers and having someone mentor them for the first few months on the job.
“It has not been easy in this time of turnover,” Dunlap said. “They have hung in there and kept high case loads.”
Reed, who was adopted and spent time in foster care as a child, said she did not take lightly the decision to violate confidentiality by talking publicly about Rylan’s case and other problems she witnessed with the department.
“The weight of this child’s death diminished my sense of obligation to keep these concerns confidential,” she said. “I would be enabling reckless decision-making on the part of this agency. I want Rylan’s life to have meant something. Coming forward is the right thing to do.”
She said in an interview after the meeting that she will keep coming back to board meetings “until we get some answers.”