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DSS uses new method to protect children

By Staff
Pilot program to be expanded
By CHRISTINA HALE
Staff Writer
Changes in child-protective services, coming in July, allow social workers and parents to work together to benefit children, according to workers with the Beaufort County Department of Social Services.
The North Carolina Multiple Response System, which allows for more parent involvement in some cases, started with 10 pilot counties in 2002 and will soon be implemented in every county in the state, according the N.C. Division of Social Services.
Lorre Bowen, program manager for child-protective services, said DSS has been implementing the program gradually over the last few years.
By July, this response system will be applied to all cases in Beaufort County.
Bowen said the system helps “preserve the family unit” and “empowers parents.”
Previously, a report of a “low-risk” situation such as a dirty house meant the child was “pulled out of class, questioned and examined even before the parents had the opportunity to sit down and speak with us,” Bowen said. “Now, we meet together and they know why we’re coming.”
DSS Director Jim Harriett said if the parents refuse a meeting, DSS can still proceed with an investigation.
Scott Cullom, a child-welfare supervisor, said the system is “less incident focused, and instead deals with the whole picture.”
DSS in Beaufort County currently has 140 cases open, involving 250 children. Each month, the department receives an average of 60 reports of child mistreatment and looks into about 40 of them, Cullom said.
The numbers are up this month, Cullom said. “We receive 90 reports and accepted 61.”
Under the state’s previous assessment approach, one person would go out and investigate what happened without the parents’ knowledge, gathering information from neighbors, doctors and school administrators — everyone but the parents.
If the report turned out to be true, another person would work with the family to change the problem in that household.
Barry Johnson, a supervisor with child welfare, said with the new approach, only one person is assigned through the life of the case. “No matter what the level of maltreatment, all parents were placed on a central registry in which all counties had access,” he said.
Social workers were required to have two meetings per family per month. The number of meetings has gone up to one per week for every family. The amount of time a social worker can spend on one case was extended from 30 days to 45 days.
The state’s new response system will require 150 to 200 additional hours for DSS employees. “Ninety-minute meetings per family with one meeting per week and a 15 family case load adds up in a month,” Johnson said.
This will decrease in the long run because families will not be coming back into the system as much, Johnson said.
Johnson said a statewide 2003-2005 research study of the new response system said it “didn’t affect the safety of the child.”
Harriett said a misconception is that a child will not be honest in front of his or her parents. In the less serious cases, such as children being left home alone “the kids are going to speak right up,” he said.
If social workers believe the child feels threatened in front of the parents, DSS can take action immediately.
In DSS, “the child comes first, then the goal is to help the family,” Bowen said.