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Community Child Protection Team says there's room for improvement in New Hanover County child welfare

Earlier this week, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners heard a presentation on some of the challenges involving child protection in the county.

The Community Child Protection team, or CCPT, is made up of community members working under the state's Department of Health and Human Services. Individual teams focus on the problem of child abuse and neglect in a particular county.

While the team has had some success over the last year, Neesha Allen, Co-Chair of the CCPT, noted areas in which the county is lacking.

“The lack of consistent, accessible, effective Mental Health and Developmental Disability Services has been something that we have concentrated on," she said.

Allen said it’s hard to access therapeutic placement and inpatient and psychiatric residential treatment for children. Another issue is that when the Department of Social Services or DSS takes children away, their parents lose Medicaid benefits, meaning they cannot access critical services.

Chief Judge J. H. Corpening, who has presided over juvenile court for years, echoed several of the team’s recommendations for the county.

“So some of our recommendations in this category, including expanding private insurance coverage for mental health services, expanding state funding for mental health and developmental disability services. improve oversight of Medicaid providers by Trillium, some of that oversight has been challenging in the past, expanding capacity for therapeutic placements for children, children who need that extra level of care, like can't be kept waiting, and then approving Medicaid expansion.”

According to Corpening, the top three reasons DSS removes children from their households are substance abuse, mental health issues, and domestic violence.

Parental substance misuse can lead to child fatalities, parental overdose, neglected and unsupervised children and substance affected newborns.

The lack of affordable non-subsidized housing is another major issue in the area, according to Allen.

“The working poor are not eligible for housing assistance for several consecutive years, the increase in the market rate for rental properties as putting people out of affordable housing,”

Lack of housing leads families to live in unsafe neighborhoods and forces multiple families into one dwelling. And some of them don’t even have access to any housing nor nutritional foods.

And then there’s undocumented residents. They face a slew of barriers that prevent them from meeting the basic needs of their children from dental care to education.

CCPT urged commissioners to expand medical services to all children regardless of citizenship status through local and state advocacy. Corpening addressed the elephant in the room by saying that the children of undocumented workers did not make the decision to cross the Rio Grande and come into this country illegally.

Commissioner Rob Zapple asked Corpening what happens to them when they come into his courtroom. Effectively, there is nothing he can do. There isn't legal authorization to spend federal or state money on the care of an undocumented child.

Commissioner Zapple followed up with a poignant question:

“I'm gonna ask a leading question, judge. What happens in the years down the way do you ever see any of these children's or the undocumented families back in your courtroom and are taking up other services other within our county, either through law enforcement or the judicial system," Zapple said.

Trauma doesn’t have to be just physical abuse, Corpening said, living in poverty and being hungry are forms of trauma as well. And without services to treat that trauma, it gets worse. In short, the chances that they return if they don’t receive care drastically increases.

“So yes, it’s predictable that if we don’t meet the needs of these children when they are young, then we are more likely to see them and provide services to them of a very different type, a more expensive type, and that’s incarceration. It’s a whole lot cheaper to pay on the front end than provide jail space," Corpening.

The housing issue is not so easy to solve, Corpening said. While he’s very happy about the $15 million investment the county is making into housing, the issue persists currently. He said the waiting list for subsidized housing here in New Hanover County is very long, and while those parents don’t have housing, they cannot have their children.

Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.