For William “Ben” Rose, who took over Oct. 9 as Durham County’s director of social services, “child welfare” is more than an abstraction.
He was adopted as an infant, and cites that experience as one of the reasons he has spent his career in human services. He has 26 years of experience in his field, including 18 years as social services director for Chowan County in northeastern North Carolina, and eight as director for Cabarrus County in the central part of the state.
November is National Adoption Month, and Rose is encouraging Durham County parents to step up and adopt a child. The Herald-Sun recently spoke with Rose about the challenges and goals for the Department of Social Services.
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Q: You have been on the job for a little more than a month. Any first impressions of Durham?
A: The collaboration and partnership in this county is most impressive: what is going on in the community, the planning to address issues and challenges that exist in the county.
I’ve attended the Transformation in Ten effort by the mayor’s office to deal with housing. ... I’ve had the opportunity to join the Lincoln Community Health Center Board of Directors, and [I am] just amazed at the work that is going on there. Very strategic initiatives like planning to address the opioid crisis, health crisis, housing, obesity. ... I’ve met with a few of [Duke University Medical Center’s] leaders. We had a Duke University professor bring someone from China to meet with us about social services. He was studying our system to take information back to China. It’s been overwhelming.
Q: What so far do you consider the most difficult challenge facing this department in Durham?
A: One of our biggest challenges right now is continuing to provide quality child welfare services. We’re looking at all aspects of child welfare, staffing, recruitment, retention, those aspects that are definitely a challenge not only for Durham County – but across the state and across the country. Just hiring qualified staff and being able to keep them long term, huge challenge there. And then providing the best possible services and keeping kids safe, looking at how we deliver the services, the practice part of it.
We’re going to do kind of an overhaul, an assessment of that area to really look at our gaps there. We have a lot of good strengths, but we definitely have some gaps as well, too, so we’re going to take a look at that.
I think another area that is probably always going to be a challenge is our economic independence division, the public assistance programs [like] Medicaid, Work First, food and nutrition, making sure we can provide those services in a timely manner and at a quality level.... And then I think the other challenges are addressing the community at large, needs within the community. Obviously homelessness and housing are big issues here.
Q: You mentioned child protective services. Give people a sense of what that entails. I know that’s a big department.
A: It’s a spectrum of services. Primarily we’re mandated by the federal government and through the state to investigate reports of abuse or neglect. ... And then if there are issues, determine what are the best services possible. And then of course potentially there is the need for foster care when we have those reports, because we might have a situation where it’s bad physical abuse, bad sexual abuse, or really serious neglect where we may actually have to come in and take custody of a child and protect the child through foster care.
And then it goes further into that spectrum with adoptions and permanence there, which of course is one of the things we’re celebrating this month, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. It’s a spectrum of services provided by social workers to keep kids safe and help kids find permanence if they are in need of that.
As someone who was adopted myself — I was adopted as an infant — it is something that I am really passionate about because getting that permanent home for a child, there’s nothing like that.
William “Ben” Rose, Durham County director of Social Services
Q: Durham has a high rate of child poverty. Many churches and other organizations are committed to fighting hunger and poverty. Do you have any thoughts from your experience about how we reduce poverty?
A: It’s not easy. It’s an economic development issue as well as a skills and training issue for the people that are in need. There are no easy answers. I think that what you have to do is advocate and work hard to provide the best services that you can to prepare. I really think it starts in childhood. I think it starts with that zero to 5 age, preparing those kids for school, building that foundation so they can be successful in school and then go on further to careers. ... And then, addressing the adults and the poverty and homelessness issues we have there. It’s all about resources and getting those services.
One of the challenges I’ve seen is there are all these great resources in Durham County [but] they are all limited. They all can only serve an x number of people. Their capacity is limited. They’re making a great impact on what they can but then you can never have enough, especially in an area that is as big as Durham.
Q: Do we need more federal and state money? As a society, do we need to say, This is what’s important?
A: I don’t know if that’s really for me to decide -- obviously I think that’s kind of an electorate thing. Obviously it takes resources to meet those needs. You have to balance that with trying to be effective with those resources. That’s one thing I’ve definitely tried to do. I feel very grateful for the resources we have. I’m going to try and be a good steward with those resources and make sure we’re getting the most bang for the buck.
Q: You were human services director in Cabarrus County previously. How did the legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act impact Cabarrus? Is that a challenge for you now?
A: I cannot say it created hardships, but I think it did put us in a situation where we have not been able to expand access to health care definitely to all citizens. I think again that becomes a political question that is really not my forte. I really believe Medicaid expansion has definitely proven effective in the states that have done it in terms of expanding access to health care and having more covered individuals. ... We are still one of the higher states I believe with an uninsured rate. [Medicaid expansion] probably would streamline eligibility a lot. What really it does it takes away that categorical eligibility aspect of Medicaid and says, If you’re within this range, you can qualify for Medicaid.
Q: How are you approaching some of the changes in social services delivery that the Legislature is studying, like having regional social service agencies?
A: I’m very excited they’re doing that. I was a part of a focus group a couple of weeks ago with the [UNC] School of Government. [Directors got] to talk about what we need as social services agencies from the state to get the support to be effective. ... I really believe we need to take a strong look at what resources we’re getting to help us be more effective.
We used to have regional offices back in the ’90s when I first started, and we had a lot of good support from the state, consultants and program reps coming into our offices monthly, working with our staff, training us. ... I think it’s good that the state is taking a look at how they structure that supervision going forward, because we’re in need of good training, of good in-house consultation.
Q: This is National Adoption Month, and you are advocating for that. How crucial is the need in Durham County?
A: It is very crucial. We have well over 20 children clear for adoption that are in the foster care system. I was adopted as an infant -- it is something that I am really passionate about because getting that permanent home for a child, there’s nothing like that. That’s really in part why I do what I do.... It’s about those kids that we serve in that child welfare system and helping them get safe and then if they need that permanent home helping them get that permanent home....The foster parents that we have here, they’re tremendous. I went to a [foster parenting] class and met some of the new ones that were licensing. ... They are true heroes. They are giving up their home and their time to bring in a child and foster them and potentially adopt them.