Legislation calls for more child abuse oversight in 'Christal's Law'

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Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Calls for more child abuse oversight in 'Christal's Law'
Lawmakers officially filed a bill called "Christal's Law" with the state legislature in the wake of an 8-year-old girl's death in Nash County.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Lawmakers officially filed a bill called "Christal's Law" with the North Carolina state legislature on Wednesday in the wake of an 8-year-old girl's death in Nash County.

Christal Lane died in February from suspected child abuse and her grandmother was charged with murder in connection with her death.

A month after her death, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services identified multiple violations within the Nash County Department of Social Services that officials say failed to take critical steps in handling the investigation of abuse.

RELATED: Month after 8-year-old dies, violations found in way Nash County child welfare handled case

"There were a lot of discrepancies, there was a lot that did not happen that should have happened," Nash County Commissioner Gwen Wilkins said. "Had DHHS not stepped in, I feel like there would be no corrective action plate."

Wilkins, who has been openly critical of the county DSS' handling of Lane's case, said something needed to be done in the system she says is not conducive to protecting children.

"There are too many loopholes that people have to jump through, even social services," Wilkins said. "The one thing that I wanted the bill to explain or do more on is the removal of children from the home and who is accountable."

DSS agencies are typically state administered. However, the change to NC Statute 108A-74 would allow the secretary of DHHS to have "access to records and information pertaining to any open or closed child welfare case of the DSS, to inquire into and review any county social work practice," according to the bill.

From a local level, state oversight could mean consistency for Chris Jernigan, who's the executive director of Southmountain Children and Family Services, a nonprofit that helps foster children.

"Working in so many different counties, we do see lots of differences in how a county operates," Jernigan said. "As the bill gives more specific direction as to how certain things should be done, I think that's a good thing so that more and more folks can be in tune with each other and we can all be on that same sheet of music, so to speak."

NCDHHS said it is still reviewing the bill's text but the shared goal of NCDHHS and county DSS is to create a system that keeps children safe.

"Giving the state tools to ensure county child welfare investigations follow the right processes is an important part of achieving that," NCDHHS said. "North Carolina has long underfunded its child welfare system, ranking last in per-child funding among peer states with decentralized child welfare systems. NCDHHS continues to work with lawmakers to make significant, critical investments in the child welfare system that are as urgently needed as policy improvements."