DSS board disbanded

Jan. 07, 2014 @ 05:40 PM

Union County Board of Commissioners dissolved the combined human services department and took direct control of the county’s health, social services, veteran services, senior nutrition and transportation departments.

The unanimous vote came without commissioners discussing the change.

Following news of child abuse charges brought against Wanda Sue Larson, a former Union County Department of Social Services supervisor, and her boyfriend in November, county officials looked for a way to improve the social services department. Commissioner Jonathan Thomas proposed dissolving the consolidated human services board formed to act in an advisory role to the combined human services director, Richard Matens.

Dissolving that board and placing DSS under the direct control of the commissioners would ensure nothing like Larson’s case would happen again, Thomas stated. Members of the DSS board complained that the commissioners gave the board no supervisory powers and therefore had no power over the department’s operations. By taking over the current’s board’s powers and duties, they have the same authority as an advisory committee.

But commissioners moved forward with Thomas’s plan. Now that the old DSS board is no more, commissioners will start another combined human services advisory board to replace the one they just dissolved.

In fact, no organizational changes will take place. DSS, Public Health and the other departments will still answer to Matens. He will answer to County Manager Cindy Coto, who then answers to the board of commissioners.

“Commissioners will become more closely engaged with the activities of the Consolidated Human Services Agency, not just DSS. They are doing this by assuming all powers, responsibilities and duties of the Human Services Board,” County Public Information Officer Brett Vines wrote.

A few people spoke during the public hearing preceding the commission’s vote.

CHS board member Louis Philippi said he was happy to be appointed to a board last year that would increase “effecient use” of taxpayer money. Last February, the county established the advisory board they dissolved Monday night. That board replaced an independent oversight board with members appointed by the state and county officials.

When news of Larson’s arrest broke, Philippi said he realized the CHS board was not doing enough.

“I asked myself, what are we doing here?” he said. “Protecting the taxpayer and promoting efficiency of bureaucracy is certainly a noble cause. However, I’ve come to understand that our primary mission is the same as the mandate in health and human services; that is to protect the young, the weak and the infirm.”

The CHS board members did not ask to see the chart of organization, service providers, enforcement personnel or supervisory procedures.

“The first thing we should have done was to ensure the system protected those in need,” he said.

Though the board was created to advise the human services director and not provide operational oversight, Philippi said the board should have done that very thing.

He apologized to the commissioners and asked that they consider him for appointment to the human services board if they choose to reform it.

Board member Melinda Plue said she tried to explain to commissioners why the current board was an asset and not a hinderance to operating human services.

“I am not a county employee, I’m not a state employee or a politician and I don’t have a dog in this fight except that I understand social work policy as well as I understand how to best represent consumers that must utilize social services agencies,” Plue said.

The 17 people serving on the CHS board come from a variety of professional backgrounds working in medical and social services, Plue said. They are best qualified to advise the commission during this time. Union County DSS requires many changes because Larson was reported several times, including at the state level, but no action was taken, she said.

“We all have a responsibility here and I promise you that these children once they’ve gotten past this, will not sing the praises of Union County DSS or North Carolina DSS when all is said and done,” Plue said. “This system we’re in is not irreparably broken, but we have certainly damaged people’s lives and we’d better own that.”

There are problems that stretch beyond Union County. Good DSS employees have left the department, community members report heartbreaking stories and there is a high rate of department leader turnover, she said. The state does not require social workers to hold a social work degree.

“Please do not disband this board. The only thing you should disband is this consolidation,” Plue said. “The public deserves an oversight board that either runs DSS or if not, can at least hear grievances of the people served by it.”