Nash Co. Commissioner calls for resignation of DSS leadership after child's death, violations found

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023
Nash Co. Commissioner calls for resignation of DSS leadership
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A letter obtained by the ABC11 I-Team states the county's DSS staff violated a number of policies in handling multiple child welfare cases, including one that led to the death of an 8-year-old child in February.

A Nash County leader called for the county's department of social services leaders to resign after state leaders called out the department for multiple violations related to how it has handled child welfare cases.

"The citizens of Nash County have lost trust and faith in the leadership there," said Nash Co. commissioner Gwen Wilkins; referring to Nash County DSS.

Wilkins said when she read the report that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) sent on Friday, she was stunned and outraged.

The letter obtained by the ABC11 I-Team stated the county's DSS staff violated a number of policies in handling multiple child welfare cases, including one that led to the death of an 8-year-old child in Feburary.

The review of cases handled by the department was launched after 8-year-old Christal Lane died while DSS was actively investigating allegations of abuse.

Lane died on February 7 and her grandmother, Patricia Ricks, was charged with felony child abuse and first-degree murder.

Search warrants obtained by the I-Team revealed deputies described Lane's body as mutilated on February 7.

"It is this officer's opinion that Christal Lane had been severely beaten and tortured with an unknown device," one search warrant stated.

The document described the girl's head as bruised and swollen, her eyes swollen and more than 100 cuts on her head and body.

Nash County DSS confirmed they had received a report of suspected abuse regarding Lane nearly two months prior in mid-December.

Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone said his office also started investigating the case at this time but had to juggle protecting the kids with ensuring they aren't taking a kid out of a home unwarranted.

"You've got to handle that case totally different than how you would grownups and it would take a little bit more time because the interview systems are different, the techniques are different and this is one of the cases that we couldn't get into the home and get those kids out fast enough," Stone said.

Stone said his office did recommend Lane and the five other children be removed from the Nash County home in January.

"My investigator at the time wanted the kids taken out of the home, recommended it to DSS and I don't know what the procedures are over there but the kids were not removed from the home at the time," Stone said.

A little over three weeks later, Lane was dead.

"It disturbs me greatly. It's a failure," Stone said. "It's something that I think the state of North Carolina and other states across the nation can look at and say what can we put in place to ensure the safety of our kids?"

Wilkins expressed that the discovery that officials knew of potential abuse prior to the death disturbed and outraged her.

"When you have paperwork that leads up and shows that there is abuse in the home, that incidences that have happened, that meant someone in the medical profession has expressed concern, and when they're not followed up, according to that report, you know, it's just I can't wrap my head how around that how anyone could just not do that and leave those kids there," Wilkins said.

Wilkins said one DSS employee who handled Lane's case had been terminated, she would like to see the termination or resignation of the supervisor, DSS director and deputy director.

"I've gotten text messages, I've received emails, all with things that I'm finding out that there's just no follow-up, the supervisor was not supervising in my opinion," she said. "I think the only way to remedy that is with new leadership."

NCDHHS reviewed around 23 other child welfare cases within the county and highlighted similar gaps in how DSS staff handled many of them.

Nash County DSS did not return the I-Team's calls or emails.

The Nash County manager and other commission members also did not return the I-Team's request for comment.

On Friday, county leaders scheduled a special-called meeting for Monday morning where they met with an attorney. That meeting was not open to the public and ABC11 has not confirmed it is directly connected with the DSS violations.

The letter sent from NCDHHS outlined multiple corrective actions the county needs to take, Wilkins said on Monday she is confident those can be taken.

"We're doing everything we can to correct it. We're following up on the DHHS letter. They have 30 days to present the corrective action plan to DHHS," Wilkins said.

Stone said his office is reviewing how they can better collaborate and communicate across departments on future child abuse cases.

"I've laid in bed many nights and thought what could we do differently? What better procedures could we do?" Stone said.

He said his deputies plan to meet with school stakeholders to review best practices in filing abuse reports.

NCDHHS declined an interview but stated, "Ensuring the safety, health, and well-being of children is a priority for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS)."

A spokesperson explained NCDHHS has the responsibility to evaluate the county's child welfare services and can happen any time NCDHHS believes a policy or law may have been violated.

Ricks is still facing charges and has a scheduled court date in July.

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