Image: DSS Board Chair and Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs during Monday’s commission meeting
At the Durham Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting this past Monday, DSS Assistant Director of Child & Family Services Jovetta Whitfield presented a new DSS policy to the board. The policy, pertaining to the placement of children with medically complex needs, states: “When searching for a potential placement of a child with medically complex needs, Durham County MUST first assess whether relatives are willing and able to care for the child(ren), and the extent to which the placement with a relative is in the best interest of the child(ren).”
Assistant Director Whitfield claimed that the reason for the policy was the increase in children DSS was seeing with special needs. Nowhere in her presentation or in the Board’s agenda was it mentioned that the policy in fact related to DSS being sued for a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to public records obtained by Emancipate NC, a lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of a young baby with serious disabilities. Rather than assisting the parents or other family to obtain in-home services to help care for the baby, DSS sent the baby away to live in an institution in Tar River, NC, far away from where the parents live.
The federal court docket shows this lawsuit was recently settled in exchange for a cash payment, along with DSS developing a new protocol prioritizing in-home care and in-home placement, to provide support needed for families to care for kids with special needs.
This case fits a disturbing pattern of DSS avoiding transparency. While individual cases demand confidentiality on the part of DSS in order to protect children, matters of public policy must be a matter of public debate. The reality we have observed over and over is that DSS wants to operate behind a veil to cover for practices that in fact harm the children they’re claiming to protect.
Over twenty stakeholders we interviewed for a report on local-level policy reforms agreed that the agency sorely needs reform. But DSS Board Chair and Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs refused to meet with us to discuss the modest policy proposals in the report, even as various non-DSS court and governmental actors are willing to meet to discuss these public policies.
This is not the culture of an agency that is supposed to care for our community’s vulnerable families. It’s time to speak frankly and honestly about the problems at Durham DSS.