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North Carolina's Inconsistent Protection System Compromises Child Welfare

Earlier studies have found that children who grow up in houses with a TV on many hours a day learn fewer words than children in households with less TV time.
Heleen Sitter/Getty Images
via NPR, file
An investigation by Carolina Public Press finds inconsistencies in how counties decide to remove children from potentially dangerous homes

Whenever signs exist that a child is being abused or neglected, it’s a social worker’s job to determine whether it’s best to step in and remove that child from their home.

It’s not an easy position to be in. Social workers must prioritize a child’s safety while making sure they don’t break up a family unnecessarily.

But the likelihood a child is removed from their home varies depending on where they live in North Carolina.

Some county agencies remove children at a rate much higher than the state average while other departments rarely remove children at all or even receive reports of abuse.

WUNC's Charlie Shelton-Ormond spoke with Kate Martin, lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press, about the publication's series. "Patchwork Protection." on North Carolina's child protection system.

How The System Works

KATE MARTIN: "If a family is treated differently in one county compared to another, that can lead to problems, it can lead to children being taken away from families when they really shouldn't be. Or it could also mean that children stay with a family when they really shouldn't.

"And in North Carolina, the way child welfare services are administered is each county - North Carolina has 100 of them - is responsible for hiring social workers, making sure they take the training that's mandated by the state, and then making sure that they follow the policies that are set forth through the federal government, and also by the state of North Carolina to make sure that those children and families are treated fairly. And what we did is we looked at the data that said, When children are taken away, how often is that, and how does that compare to the state as a whole?"

What Carolina Public Press Found

MARTIN: "What we found really is about, I'd say, a dozen or so counties that are either far above or far below the state (average), and we started asking questions about some of those counties.

"What NC fast [the system that facilitates the child welfare package] is supposed to do is be sort of a unifying system by which social service agencies track families and benefits. The child welfare package is supposed to track a child and give them a unique identifier. So that if that family or that child move somewhere else in North Carolina, they know immediately that history.

"There's been connection issues, there have been workers who've had to input their data overnight. In the past year or two, there was a trial phase where they had to write down all of their reports like they normally would on paper, but then also input it into the system. So they're doing the work twice, they weren't sure if it was going to work entirely. … But now, it just doesn't work. Counties aren't using it. They're having to use their old systems. In some cases, Wake County, for instance, is even looking for a stopgap case management system until NC fast manages to get going."

Read more of Kate Martin's reporting here.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
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