NC legislative oversight committee questions whether DSS official really needs a judge's order to let him address his employees' handling of case involving child.
Stoney Blevins, director of the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, testified before a state legislative committee last week, saying he couldn’t tell legislators much about a specific child welfare case due to confidentiality laws.
While Blevins was able to speak to the accuracy, or lack thereof, in a Black Mountain police report regarding the case, he skirted the details known to him and his social workers because state law requires a judge’s ruling to give specifics of a confidential case, he told lawmakers.
Blevins was subpoenaed to appear before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee of Health and Human Services last week — a tool legislators rarely use to compel uncooperative witnesses. Blevins had said the subpoena was unnecessary.
While Blevins said the state’s juvenile code forbade him from providing specifics about the March incident, he had a lot to say about improving the state’s child welfare system.
Police report in doubt?
Blevins challenged the accuracy of a Black Mountain Police Department’s report that had led to the request for him to appear before legislators.
Police called Buncombe DSS, and a county DSS worker told a police officer to leave the girl in the custody of a man she did not know in a hotel room filled with used drug needles, according to the police report.
Blevins strongly disagreed with this last claim. “It is my statement, based off my information, that no (DSS) staff member in Buncombe County has given the advice for a police officer to leave a child in a room with a stranger and 100 to 200 needles,” Blevins said, speaking about the police report.
Blevins pointed out that the police report says the officer hung up on the DSS worker who was trying to take the report. Much like 911 operators, DSS workers ask specific questions when taking information on a new case, called intake, he explained. The purpose of intake questions is to determine how urgently a case needs the government’s attention. Some abuse is so heinous that workers are required to investigate immediately. Other cases require that they respond within 24 or 72 hours.
Buncombe County DSS has since changed its procedures, Blevins told Carolina Public Press last month. He said a social worker now shows up every time a law enforcement officer requests such a presence and will perform the intake report at the scene.
Throughout last week’s hearing, Blevins explained the delicate balance of preserving parental rights while ensuring children are cared for.
Balancing oversight and confidentiality
He answered legislators’ questions about generic procedures but drew the line when asked about the specific case.
“I had this conversation with (Sen. Chuck Edwards) the very first day we spoke in April,” Blevins said. “The mechanism to get that level of discussion is with an order signed by a judge. And I’m willing to have that conversation if this body is willing to take that action.”
Time and again, though, lawmakers tried to turn the conversation back toward the specific case. Blevins evaded, citing confidentiality rules.
Sen. Jim Perry pushed back at the notion of blanket confidentiality. “I do not believe it is a blanket black box that prevents you from having any discussion about anything related to your department,” Perry said. “(Health and Human Services) is a creation of this body, the fine men and women who were here long before me, and the only purpose of having an oversight committee is to provide oversight.”
Sen. Ralph Hise similarly said he disagreed with Blevins’ assertion that he couldn’t talk about the case and asserted that the General Assembly did not need permission from the judicial branch to do its job. “I truly hope in this process that this confidentiality requirement isn’t being used to hide the mistakes,” Hise said. “And I think you could understand how we would see that it could have the department or its failures.”
At the close of the hearing, Sen. Edwards asked Blevins if the same DSS worker handled both calls from the Black Mountain Police Department.
“I apologize that I can’t answer,” Blevins said.
“If you can’t answer because you don’t know or you can answer because you refuse to under some other authority,” Edwards said.
Blevins said confidentiality laws, as well as state rules surrounding personnel information, prevent him from saying more without a judge’s intervention. “I can promise you, I would be better served to speak to you about the things you’re asking me,” Blevins said. “But when public officials do not abide by the laws, they take an oath to, to stand for, then our system is in trouble. … If we need to talk specifics, all I would ask is that we take the appropriate legal steps so that I can talk to you freely without violating the law that I took an oath to uphold.”