The interim Moore County social services director has implemented a reorganization of the departments’s social work staff in a move to align caseload sizes with state standards.
The changes come a month after an independent investigation concluded that high caseloads and “chronic understaffing contributed significantly to the findings of omissions and errors” in the case involving a 23-month-old toddler who drowned nearly a year ago while under DSS supervision.
Laura Cockman was hired March 2 to replace John Benton, who resigned abruptly the same day the investigation found “significant failures” on the agency’s part that could have contributed to Rylan Ott’s death. Cockman was part of a three-person team that conducted the investigation.
Last April, four months after being returned to his mother, the boy wandered off unsupervised and drowned in a nearby pond. He was two weeks shy of his second birthday.
His mother, Samantha Nacole Bryant, remains in the Moore County detention center under a $200,000 bond awaiting trial for involuntary manslaughter and felony child abuse. Her next court date is scheduled for April 20.
Under the changes Cockman outlined Wednesday afternoon during her first meeting with the Board of Social Services, child and adult services will be split into two units.
“We have reorganized the social work side of the house,” she told the board. “So we’ll have in that new plan two units that are composed of nothing but investigators, which is really good. It will keep us within state-recommended caseload sizes and supervisory levels. I really heard nothing but joy from the staff about the rearrangement. I think they are glad to specialize and excel. I think they are happy about that.”
The reorganization comes a day after the county commissioners approved a request from Cockman to add three positions in social work. That includes an additional supervisor in child services, that Cockman said “would help ensure that DSS complies with state recommended caseload size requirements” and that they would also help “ensure adequate coverage during times when vacancies occur.”
Cockman said the department has enough in its budget to cover the expenses of hiring the additional staff and that she would include them in her budget request for next year.
County Manager Wayne Vest told the commissioners that he agreed with Cockman’s request and would incorporate those threw new positions in his proposed budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Hiring more social workers was among the recommendations of the investigative team.
Cockman told the social services board Wednesday that she met with the supervisors in child and adult services to talk about the restructuring.
“We talked about how we would use the new positions, balancing out the work in the individual units,” Cockman told the board. “We aligned the units with the supervisors that I felt were the most proficient and they agreed that they would be comfortable supervising those workers. Hopefully we’ll get all of our positions filled and we’ll actually be in good shape to meet the state standards.
She said the department averages about 170 reports of abuse and neglect each month, though not all are substantiated. The state standard is about 10 cases per worker.
Cockman said the agency continues to work to fill a number of vacancies, which has been an ongoing challenge. She outlined at least 10 vacant positions that include the social work program manager, income maintenance administrator, three social workers in investigations and two social worker III positions.
She said the department is making progress and has filled several positions in her two weeks on the job.
“That has been a relief,” she said.
Cockman said the number of cases continue to grow, increasing the demand for additional social workers.
Chairwoman Katie Dunlap said the county also has reached out to five universities in an effort to recruit additional social workers, which was also one of the recommendations of the investigation panel.
Cockman added that social workers and supervisors will take part in peer reviews next week to look for ways to improve services. She said it could also shed light on areas where additional training may be needed.
Board member Catherine Graham, who is also the county commissioners’ chairwoman, said it was “encouraging to see how the whole department is becoming a team to work to correct some things” that came to light in the independent investigation.
“I appreciate your leadership in handling it that way,” she said of Cockman seeking input from the staff on the reorganization. “Because I think to correct any issue … they need to feel like they are part of the team and they’re on the same team.”
Cockman worked for the county department for 12 years as a social worker and then as a supervisor. She worked for 14 years with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as a consultant in adult protective services and adult programs.
While the department has endured criticism over its handling of the Rylan Ott case, Cockman read a transcript of a voice mail she received from a former law enforcement officer who was recently charged in connection with leaving her child unattended in a vehicle, which led to the involvement of DSS.
“It was the worst situation of my life,” the woman said in the voice mail. “I had never been in trouble and your social worker was so kind and so nice. I really didn’t expect it. I used to be a police officer and I’ve only heard about a lot of negative interaction in different areas. I only had kind of a bad feeling about working with social workers. The social worker, she totally changed my opinion about social services staff. … I just wanted to thank her and thank you for making sure it was a smooth process for me and that I was not humiliated. It was a just a good overall experience.”
Pamela Reed, Rylan’s former Guardian Ad Litem in his custody case, urged the board and Cockman during the public comment period at the start of the meeting to not “leave any stones unturned” as it moves forward. Saying this was likely her final appearance before the board, she thanked members for conducting the independent investigation, which she began calling for last June.
At nearly every meeting since then, Reed has repeatedly told the DSS board that supervisors in Child Protective Services supervisors ignored “red flags” she and the boy’s former foster parents raised about the mother’s behavior, as well as the case worker’s recommendation against trial placement.
She has strongly criticized the department and CPS supervisors for not observing any visits between the mother and the two children because they did not have the time to drive them back and forth between the foster home at Fort Bragg and Carthage.
Reed read from an email she recently received from an unnamed current foster parent in Moore County who had “lost hope in DSS and the legal system,” which she said “firmly supports the assertion that there is much work to be done” to correct problem in the department. Reed read the same email earlier this month in an address to the county commissioners.
“We have seen case worker after case worker,” Reed read. “They are continuing to make mistakes and are still not giving the judges all the information. We have lost too many good case workers to the environment at DSS and the DSS legal team. For the first time in a while, I am hopeful again. I hope that one day I can say I believe that DSS is working in the child’s best interest again and not their own convenience. …There is still so much to be addressed and so many changes that need to be made, but I feel this could be a catalyst that is needed to gain momentum and they can no longer ignore problems.”
Reed urged the board “to press forward and assess both the ‘environment’ within DSS, as well the ‘DSS legal team’ as experienced by this foster parent. She said that because so much information was redacted in the report on the investigation, she could not “assess whether or not the panel reviewed any of the issues which were not contained in the DSS paperwork — and that is the last and only stone I am concerned that may be left unturned here.”
“I urge you, the interim director and DSS board, to make sure the stone of integrity is not left unturned,” she said. “You have taken so many steps in the right direction and I will be praying that you continue on. Rylan died all alone. His mother failed him miserably. But this agency failed him also.
“How many other problems would we find if each case was combed through by an independent panel? How many other significant failures and omissions would be uncovered? Those children matter…just as much as Rylan. I pray you will use this opportunity to continue making improvements and changes on behalf of them all.”
Reed said she applauds the caseworkers “who man the front lines every, single day and give their honest best effort to serve this community.”
“My speaking out was not ever about being ‘against DSS’ — rather, it has always been about being against cutting corners when it comes to children’s safety,” she said. “It has always been about demanding accountability when we failed to remember it was never about us — it’s always been about the little ones, who we are supposed to serve when they need it the most. … Please, do not leave any stones unturned in holding employees within this agency accountable for their actions.”
Dunlap asked Reed what those “stones” are. Reed responded that she was referring to problems with CPS supervisors and the agency’s attorney, Ward Medlin, who has not attended the last three board meetings.
Reed said Medlin objected to the judge hearing testimony from her and the Rylan’s foster parents during the hearing in December 2015 about the mother’s behavior and being unfit for trial placement. She said none of their concerns were included in the court report given to the judge.
“I want to assure you that is a concern of ours,” she said of Reed’s comments.
But Dunlap said that “some of the answers you seek we cannot provide” because they involve specific personnel issues that the board legally cannot divulge or discuss in public.
“Thank you for your concern and tenacity,” Dunlap said to Reed. “We have listened.”