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"Dodging Standards": Carolina Public Press's Kate Martin on troubled county social services departments

The Cherokee County court house, where the county has been sued repeatedly due to serious issues at the Department of Social Services.
Lilly Knoepp
Blue Ridge Public Radio
The Cherokee County court house, where the county has been sued repeatedly due to serious issues at the Department of Social Services.

In a three-part series released recently by Carolina Public Press, lead investigative reporter Kate Martin expands on her coverage of Cherokee County's troubled DSS to look at why problems like these exist and what other states have done about it.

From Carolina Public Press:

Local social services agencies in North Carolina have vast authority over the lives of families, children, people with disabilities and others. State rules set clear minimal standards for social workers and social services directors, but state agencies can’t prevent counties from hiring unqualified people. In at least one case, an unqualified agency director later admitted to a work-related felony while workers in her office unlawfully separated children from their families. Counties struggle to recruit and retain qualified workers in part due to pay inequities between counties. But other states avoid these problems with different approaches.

Martin's reporting in an area that doesn't often see what she calls "incisive journalism" uncovered serious problems — things that go wrong when those in leadership positions don't understand the rules and their responsibilities. Martin noted that people were sometimes surprised that a journalist, especially one from outside their community, was interested in their area, but that changed as she continued her work.

“While initially people can be closed off, they do start sending tips – and that’s how I got a lot of this story. People want people to know what’s happening in their county,” Martin said.

The Dodging Standards series was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Kate Martin is the lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press.

More from Carolina Public Press — 'Raising Jails': Carolina Public Press series takes a look at how, and why, North Carolina counties are building bigger jails

Benjamin Schachtman: All right, my guest now is Kate Martin. She's the lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Kate, thanks for being with us.

Kate Martin: Thank you for having me.

BS: So you have recently released a series on DSS in North Carolina, a three-part series. To start out, tell us a little bit about this series.

KM: Last year, when I was covering a trial, I heard from one of the lawyers that a DSS director — this is the Department of Social Services; most counties have a DSS department — that one of their directors didn't have the qualifications for the job that she held. And I wanted to look into that more. And it turns out, there are many DSS workers who don't have qualifications. It seems to me that most of the counties are following the state law. But in one case that I'm aware of, there were some tragic circumstances.

BS: And in this first piece that you put out, you're really looking at how there are some minimum standards, but they go unenforced —can you tell us a little bit about that?

KM: You're supposed to take all of the applications and set them into two different groups, right, you've got people who meet the qualifications and people who don't. And you're supposed to pick the person for the job from among the people who meet the qualifications, and ideally, from among the most qualified applicants.

And the idea is you're supposed to be avoiding nepotism, or favoritism, or political hires and things like that. That's not what happened in the case of Cherokee County, which, in 2016, hired a DSS director who was not qualified for the job, even though there was one woman who I found and talk to who was qualified for the job. And the woman who got the job is married to the elected sheriff.

BS: Ah, yes.

KM: Yes, in the case of Cherokee County, the county was taking children away from their parents, without any lawyers or judges involved. And when the government does that, you need to have everybody represented by lawyers. And because of this, the county is being sued by more than two dozen people, and has so far paid out multiple millions of dollars in even just the first three cases that have settled or gone to trial.

BS: So in this second piece that you have out, you talk a little bit about, you know, from the county's point of view, the struggle to find quality people, how did that play out?

KM: There are some pretty wild swings and pay even from one county to another, it can be a difference of $10,000. And if you are a worker who's trying to earn money and pay for things that you need to live, it's not that hard of a decision to just cross the county line to get a huge pay bump. And, and for those reasons, these smaller counties, usually smaller, more rural, or less-resourced counties, can't afford to pay more for these workers. And so they're in a constant state of recruitment, and sometimes hiring people who don't meet the exact qualifications, but are going through a formal program to work against those qualifications to eventually meet those qualifications. And of course, when they do meet the qualifications, all of a sudden these neighboring counties start looking more attractive because they can still pay more.

BS: Of course, yeah. And so in the last piece of the series, you talked about how other states have dealt with the same problem. Can you say a little bit about that?

KM: Yeah, states that have different systems than North Carolina can sometimes stabilize pay among rural and urban areas. More specifically to the qualifications area, in North Carolina, if a county hires somebody who doesn't meet qualifications when there are qualified people, North Carolina agencies can do nothing to prevent that hire. In other states, that's not the case. In other states, if you have improper hiring, state agencies can remove those people, state agencies can withhold federal funding. You know, North Carolina has some decisions to make really to see if this is a problem that they want to solve.

BS: All right. Well, we will have links for all of these articles on our page. Kate Martin, lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press, we thank you for your time.

KM: Thank you for having me, Ben.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.