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News 13 Investigates: Fighting the DSS system

DSS can't place a child in any home until they're sure it's safe, and those investigations can take time. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

Statewide, more kids are being forced into the foster system and left in limbo, according to North Carolina’s largest foster care provider.

According to them, foster care in the state is growing at an alarming rate. It’s up 25 percent over the last five years.

But a News 13 exclusive investigation found when one Henderson County woman fought to keep a child out of the system, she ran into obstacles that led straight to a courtroom.

It's one of the most frequent questions and requests WLOS gets asked to look into, shouldn't a parent decide who cares for his or her child and when can family or friends step in?

Because of state and federal laws, the answer often leads to a courtroom and foster care. It's a process some lawmakers say should get another look and possibly get revisions.

Fighting to keep Tristan

“All right, hang on,” Kristina Williams said as she lifted then 3-month-old Tristan out of his car seat as he started to fuss.

People say, home is where your heart is. For Williams, her home isn't complete without the infant.

“You're me-maw's darling aren't ya? Let's change your shirt,” Williams cooed at Tristan as she changed him.

Williams' home is all the now 6-month-old Tristan's known. The two forged a bond, similar to her bond with Tristan's mom and family friend, Allie.

“I classify her as a daughter. I love her. I will always love Allie,” Williams said as she continued to play with Tristan.

Struggling with mental health issues, Allie left Tristan with Kristina in August.

“And I'm trying my ever best to protect him,” said Williams.

She’s protecting him from being moved in with strangers.

“They're trying to rip him away from all of that. It's not right,” said Williams.

Acting in Tristan's best interest in August, Kristina called DSS before taking him to the doctor.

Considering the child abandoned, DSS told her to pack up his clothes so the agency could take custody.

“I don't want him in the system. I will die before I let them take this baby,” Williams said when she called News 13 to ask what she could do.

At first, Williams was told it was because of her age -- she is 73.

The concerns

Family counselor Kristie Sluder, who at one time worked for DSS, sees it time and again.

“I have seen a lot of impulsive and irrational decisions made that has disrupted a child's attachment or sense of security,” said Sluder.

Sluder said those attachments should take priority.

“Whether the caregiver is biological or not, if it is a nurturing, caring caregiver, a mature caregiver, that child fares well,” said Sluder.

Why DSS does what it does

While DSS seems to agree, claiming family "re-unification is always the first goal," many cases, including Williams', still end up in a courtroom.

“It's not something we get excited about. It's something we're fearful of and something that we have anxieties about and trying to remember what the families feel,” said Kevin Marino, Social Work Program administrator for DSS in Henderson County.

But DSS can't place a child in any home until it's sure the home is safe, and those investigations can take time.

‘We have to have criminal background checks done, we have to look at our central registry at the department to see if there have been any reports that have been substantiated that we found abuse, neglect or dependency,” explained Marino.

According to Marino, that ultimately means a court hearing before a judge. Being a caretaker or blood relative doesn't give someone rights.

“Your direct questions is, ‘do they have rights.’ No, they don't, not unless there's some legal paperwork that's been brought about by the court,” said Marino.

When DSS is involved, records show in Henderson County on average more than 40 percent of kids end up in foster care and about 20 percent are placed with family members. It's better than the state's average. News 13 found similar results in Buncombe County. But in Haywood County, only 12 percent of children were placed with a relative.

Changes to be considered

To be a qualified foster parent in North Carolina it takes 30 hours of training, home inspections and a license. Lawmakers said easing those requirements could help.

“If we could modify the regulations that stipulate in a kinship setting the regulations could be different to make it easier for a grandparent or a relative or a close friend to get not just custody but custody with the support,” Sen. Terry Van Duyn said.

Van Duyn has signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation in the Senate that looks to overhaul DSS after the state faced a $1.7 million fine from the federal government after failing to meet federal standards on child protection investigations and more.

Support matters for families like Williams', who face expensive and overwhelming obstacles to keep children in the only family scenarios they’ve known.

Sluder said, when it comes to families going up against DSS in a courtroom, they are “unequivocally outmatched, outgunned, outresourced,”

Williams said she doesn’t need additional funding from the state to care for Tristan and she’s not interested in the money, just his well-being. Facing thousands in court fees, her case is crawling forward. Williams has been in court several times since August trying to gain temporary custody.

"I feel like the struggle is going to go on, the expense is going to go on, but it doesn't matter about that,” said Williams.

She's focused on keeping Tristan smiling and in the only home he's known.

“God put him in my life for a reason. I don't know what it is. I may never know. But he put him with me for some reason, and I will, I'll fight through fire for him,. He's my life, he's my life,” Williams said.

DSS changes coming

Big changes are coming to DSS, starting in January. New legislation will provide more oversight of county DSS offices as the state looks toward a regional approach for oversight of individual county offices.

A third-party independent auditor will also be put in place to review decisions under the proposed legislation. New legislation could also mean new state standards and training for DSS staff, making the system more uniform county to county. The state also hopes a pilot program to better track DSS data with the new NC Fast System can be expanded to more counties statewide.

Here’s some information the HCDSS office sent us from its statistics:

From January 2016 to today: 280 children came into HCDSS custody and 157 went out for the following reasons:

  • 55 percent found legal permanence with their parents or family
  • 30 percent legally freed for adoption
  • 10 percent aged out of foster care
  • 5 percent agreed to engage in foster care to age 21 services or transferred out of Henderson County.

Currently, HCDSS has 119 children in custody. They are in the following placements:

  • 33 percent are in the home of a relative
  • 77 percent are in a licensed foster care home

Referrals for Protective Services:

  • Last year: HCDSS averaged 1,065 calls. Approximately 28 percent were screened out due to not meeting NCGS 7B requirements and 72 percent were screened in.
  • This year: HCDSS is averaging 37 percent screened out and 63 percent screened in (for four months of data).
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