Faith-based groups can help protect and support children, but their role is changing, a state social services official said.
Kevin Kelley, assistant section chief for family support and child welfare services in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Social Services (DSS), said DSS has formal contracts with some faith-based groups to help parents overcome issues that might cause problems. These programs, called “intensive family preservation” are designed to keep children in the home.
Informally, churches and other groups help out with clothing banks, food banks and parental support groups. But Kelley prefers other options to residential services provided by faith-based organizations personified for North Carolina Baptists by Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina (BCH).
DSS officials would rather place children with relatives or in foster homes than in residential care, which Kelley called more expensive and more restrictive. “It’s only used when it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.
In residential facilities the child doesn’t feel like he or she is in a normal environment, Kelley said. The child might have to switch schools and even if they don’t word quickly spreads that they are in the facility, which has a stigma. The children in residential facilities might also learn negative behavior from their peers, he said.
“The outcomes are not as positive as we would like,” Kelley said.
That opinion is not shared by Michael C. Blackwell, president of BCH since 1983.
“That really gets to me,” Blackwell said. “It always has. People who have no clue and no idea about the productive citizens we turn out in this place can make the statement that we don’t provide the care that the government thinks we should be providing.”
Karen McLeod, president/CEO of the statewide Children and Family Services Association-NC, said there are many forms of residential services, including campuses, group homes, therapeutic homes, juvenile justice home and mental health facilities. DSS would be at a loss for serving children without such placement options. But she confirmed that DSS will only place children in residential group homes when other options are exhausted.
“They do a great job, but they just have a very specific, targeted skill to offer,” Kelley said of BCH’s work.
State records show that in June about 12 percent of children in DSS custody were in residential care or other group homes. About 35 percent were in foster care; about 26 percent were in therapeutic homes that are led by workers with extra training to meet special needs; and about 20.5 percent were staying with a relative.
In all, more than 9,600 children were in DSS custody. That’s down from more than 10,800 four years earlier.
The DSS web site says that the organization’s Child Protective Services program “strives to ensure safe, permanent, nurturing families for children by protecting them from abuse and neglect while attempting to preserve the family unit.”
DSS officials prefer that children be in a family setting, Kelley said. The first choice is a relative since they are more likely to know the child and his or her needs. The second choice is a licensed foster home. DSS officials investigate reports of abuse and neglect with law enforcement agencies. “Our job is to make sure kids are safe from abuse and neglect,” Kelley said.
Any time a county DSS worker has enough information to believe a child cannot be safely maintained in a home, the worker will file a petition with the court and with law enforcement present can take custody of the child. A series of hearings are held with a judge ultimately deciding if a child fits legal definition of abused.
Kelley said the default position is to reunify the child with the family or show why that should not happen. At least every six months the court reviews the case.
Within 12 months the court will make a permanent decision in the case. Kelley said that timeline can be delayed if the parents are making progress toward making it safe for the child to be returned.
The number of children reported as abused or neglected has decreased in recent years, but the change is likely attributed to a difference in the way DSS workers handle cases. The total number of reports handled by DSS workers has gone up, state records show.
During the 2007-2008 fiscal year, 1,106 children were identified as both abused and neglected, down from 1,334 three years earlier.
The number of children “abused” decreased from 1,827 to 1,030 and those “neglected” dropped from 21,274 to 9,804 in that time.
Meanwhile, the number of cases in which DSS workers investigated to determine whether or not families needed special services has more than doubled. These cases resulted from “family assessments” done by social workers in situations other than wrongdoing by the parent.
Law enforcement is seldom involved, Kelley said.
The assessments were started by the state about five years ago, which likely accounts for the large increase. The program gets parents involved in attempts to correct a dysfunctional situation, which might be brought about by underemployment or unemployment, Kelley said. In all, the total number of cases reported to DSS officials has increased from 120,454 in 2004-2005 to 126,918 in 2007-2008. Social workers generally handle about 15 foster care cases or about 10 assessment cases, according to Kelley.
Kelley, who has been a social worker in North Carolina since 1995 and in social work for almost 20 years, said he believes the way children are helped is changing for the better in a number of ways. Workers are more family friendly, the methods are a little more sophisticated and there is less a cloak of secrecy, he said.
DSS officials are better at collecting and analyzing data. The involvement of the federal government has helped states learn from each other, Kelley said.
“The profession is maturing with time,” he said.
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