DSS denies Alvarez foster license

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 04:41 PM

The Indian Trail mayor was not licensed to become a foster parents because of his public criticism of the Union County Department of Social Services.

Michael Alvarez and his wife began the process to become a foster family early last year. They filed paperwork and attended a class this summer. Social workers conducted a home visit just before Christmas, Alvarez said.

“Everyone with DSS was wonderful and forthcoming,” he said. “The people in class were great and we were excited that we’d soon be licensed to be a foster home.”

But Union DSS sent the Alvarezs a letter dated Dec. 20, denying them a foster home license because of public comments Alvarez made about the agency a month earlier.

Wanda Sue Larson, a former Union DSS supervisor, was charged with child abuse. A child in her care was found shackled to the home’s porch with a dead chicken around his neck.

Alvarez held a press conference Nov. 24 to call for a review of all cases Larson handled while she worked for Union DSS.

“I just wanted them to do the right thing,” Alvarez said.

He said he met with the Union County Board of County Commissioners and asked them to purge any corruption in the agency.

His public criticism was the reason for denying a license to the family, the letter states. The decision was made because “it would be difficult for us to work in partnership to achieve the permanent plan for children in foster care.” The letter was signed by social worker Beth Yow and supervisor Kristin Casella.

“I speak out about a serious problem and suddenly I’m not fit to be a parent? Yet Wanda Larson was or Erica Parson’s adopted parents were? What about Zahra Baker’s parents?” Alvarez said. “It’s ok if you’re a serial killer but not if you speak out against (DSS)?”

Alvarez argues it was a purely political decision.

Union County Humans Services Director Richard Matens confirmed Alvarez was denied because of his comments, but insisted that it was not political retribution.

“It’s not about a person criticizing us. That’s not the issue,” Matens said. “All of these skill sets must be in place before we feel comfortable placing a child in their care.”

Guidelines created by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services requires potential foster families display 12 skills as observed by a professional social worker. Along with skills like relationship-building, communication and a safe environment, one criterium is the willingness to work with the agency for what is best for the child.

“The agency and the foster family form a partnership. We place a child in a foster home and ask the foster family to act on behalf of the social services agency,” Matens said. “Partnership is a critical piece because if we have foster parents who don’t agree with us and don’t cooperate with us on the decisions the agency must make in these cases, it’s not a partnership.”

Foster care is a mutual selection process. Nothing requires DSS to license an applicant if staff recommends against it. While Union DSS needs more foster homes, staff must be careful with licensing.

“We have a 6-member licensing committee that goes through each application they receive,” Matens said. “It’s their job to review those applications on their own merits.”

But Alvarez contends that the reason for denial is inherently political.

“They are punishing me for wanting them to fix the system, to protect the children and make the system work the way it’s supposed to,” Alvarez said.

Matens stands behind the decision of his staff. He admits the department is not above criticism and many changes need to take place. But there are other ways besides a press conference to express concerns, he said.

“There is a difference when you come to us with a concern. We take that seriously. There’s a difference if it’s someone asking for clarification,” Matens said. “What is an issue for me is a matter of making public claims about wrongs without any evidence to back them up.”