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From CPP: Legislators subpoena Buncombe official over DSS handling of child’s case

A state legislative committee has voted to subpoena Buncombe County’s Health and Human Services director to get answers as to why a social worker thought it was appropriate to leave a 9-year-old girl in the company of a man she didn’t know in a hotel room filled with drugs and hundreds of used hypodermic needles.

Legislators in the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services voted 15-8 along party lines Tuesday in favor of subpoenaing Buncombe Health and Human Services Director Stoney Blevins, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

State Sen. Chuck Edwards said during the hearing that police officers were told by a social worker to leave the girl in a hotel room with a man she didn’t know. Officers discovered hundreds of used needles along with drugs in the room.

Edwards said he has been unable to get straight answers out of Blevins even after a conversation. Blevins said he can’t talk about specific child welfare cases because of confidentiality laws.

“I think it is critical for this committee to thoroughly understand why anyone thought it would be OK to leave a 9-year-old girl in a hotel room with a stranger that contained needles and drugs,” Edwards said.

In a Sept. 15 email to Edwards, Blevins said he would be “honored to meet with the committee to talk and answer questions about our child welfare system. No subpoena is necessary.”

While Blevins said that confidentiality rules forbade him from talking about this specific case, he did entertain a hypothetical question. “We would never support leaving a child in a hotel room with a stranger and 300 used needles, as a blanket statement,” Blevins said Tuesday. “As an agency that works with parents experiencing substance use disorder and children exposed to multiple dangers every day, our agency would never give that guidance.”

Response times to child welfare reports vary depending on how much risk the child is in. Child welfare officials rank reported cases of abuse and respond either immediately, within 24 hours or within 72 hours depending on the severity of the allegation. The intake process can take a while, as it requires people who report abuse to answer many questions.

In almost all cases where a child is young or at immediate risk, child welfare workers are required to respond immediately. But often county level workers fail to appropriately rank the risk of a case, according to a legislative report completed last year. In nearly 1-in-4 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, child welfare workers consider outside guidance in addition to statewide policy for child welfare cases, the report said.

It is important to screen cases correctly, or agencies risk violating parents’ constitutional rights to raise their children. Taking a child from a parent is considered a last resort and is usually done to prevent imminent harm or maltreatment of a child.

Blevins confirmed he will show up to talk with legislators once he receives the subpoena.

Starting in June, Blevins directed Buncombe County social workers to respond to the scene of all law enforcement requests and shared the protocol with county law enforcement agencies. Such situations include when the only parent of a child is being arrested and is thus not able to plan for another adult to care for the child.