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North Carolina's child welfare program got poor grades in a new federal report performed every several years

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — North Carolina's child welfare program, stretched in the past by low funding and high caseload levels, now must grapple with a new federal report that found few things to praise.

Federal regulators visiting Raleigh this month disclosed findings from their latest review of North Carolina's maltreatment investigations and foster care and adoption programs. The federal Children's Bureau reviews each state every seven to ten years.

Of 14 performance factors on which the state was evaluated, North Carolina failed to reach the standards the federal government set as successful in all of them. While changing review procedures make comparisons difficult, North Carolina was in successful "substantial conformity" with six of the 14 outcomes or factors during its 2007 report.

North Carolina Division of Social Services leaders disagree with some of the new results, which are based in part on interviews and examinations of randomly picked cases. But they say they aren't surprised with findings that lay out strengths and weaknesses of a system that relies on case workers, the courts and outside service providers to succeed.

"As painful as it might be, there's nothing new or shocking in the report in terms of something that we didn't know," said Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services overseeing social services. "We know that there's always room for improvement."

Separately, the Child and Family Services Review found the state only met or exceeded national standards in one of seven data indicators — that being the percentage of children where maltreatment allegations have recurred within six months of initial allegations. Other calculation standards couldn't be made, according to the review presentation, because computer systems used by social services offices make it difficult to track children when they move.

Roughly 10,000 children are in North Carolina's child welfare system on any single day. Local DSS offices are subject to state and federal rules but are operated by individual counties, leading to wide latitude in salaries and operations. Federal, state and county governments share the $577 million in expenses this year to run the child welfare system.

The review found in 57 percent of the cases reviewed that children were safely maintained in their homes when possible and appropriate. Children also were found to receive services to meet their educational needs in 90 percent of the cases. But positive outcomes are needed at least 95 percent of the time to be in "substantial conformity."

The state Department of Health and Human Services provided a list of initiatives over the past two years they say are addressing concerns addressed in the report.

The General Assembly and counties found funding to hire another 123 child protective service workers, with a goal of reducing caseloads to 10 families per worker. In-home services for children in challenging family situations grew by $4.5 million. A new statewide computer system will soon improve tracking of children in the system.

"We've made some really important investments in the last couple of years but we can always do more," said Sharon Hirsch, president of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina.

The state now must create an improvement plan within 90 days. If plan goals aren't met within three years, the state can face monetary penalties. North Carolina was penalized $1.2 million after failing to meet one goal following the 2007 report.

Wanda Reives, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work, downplayed the severity of the review results, calling them "pretty typical" of the results in other states. But it's still a great opportunity to make changes to meet the federal government's high standards, she said.

"We should always be concerned when they are finding that our families and children are not as safe as they should be," Reives said.

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