Durham County

North Carolina passed social services reform. Here’s why it’s causing local concerns.

As part of a new state social services reform law, a working group will be holding meetings to implement changes in how counties deliver social services. This photo shows Durham’s Health and Human Services Building at 414 E. Main St.
As part of a new state social services reform law, a working group will be holding meetings to implement changes in how counties deliver social services. This photo shows Durham’s Health and Human Services Building at 414 E. Main St. The News & Observer

Members of local social services boards are expressing concerns about how a reform bill known as Rylan’s Law will affect who controls services and how they are delivered.

Nancy Coston, director of Orange County’s Department of Social Services, called the legislation that the General Assembly approved in June “a big, fat law,” one that “has the possibility of impacting social services more than anything that has been passed in awhile.” Coston’s remarks came during a presentation about the law she gave to a recent meeting of the county’s Social Services Board.

Read Next

Known as the Family Child Protection and Accountability Act, the law outlines broad measures for social services reform. Those reforms include changes in how social services is administered and a plan for child welfare reform.

That administrative reform includes regional social services departments. The law allows local social services boards or governing boards to create or join regional social services departments.

The law also established an 18-member working group that must report in April 2018 with recommendations about establishing the regional offices. By February 2019, the working group must report to the Legislature with recommendations to improve collaboration among agencies, and “a vision for transitioning the State from a county-administered system to a regionally-administered system,” a UNC School of Government summary states.

The regional offices portion of the law has prompted uncertainty and criticism. State officials say joining regional offices is not mandatory. “There is no requirement for social services boards to consolidate,” Michael Becketts, assistant secretary for human services, stated in an email. The law “provides an option for social services departments to voluntarily join services,” he stated.

Coston’s presentation, however, identified eight local programs that might be lost in a regional model, among them the Family Treatment Court, Cafe 113 and Orange Works, and the Adolescent Parenting Program. Orange County does a lot of foster parent recruiting. Word is that a regional system would take over foster care, which would hurt Orange County’s foster services, Coston said.

Others questioned how the regional departments will be funded. The law states the regional offices will have a centrally located office, but have a physical presence in every county in a region. And any county that joins a regional agency “shall be required to contribute financially to the regional department,” the law states.

Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat who represents Orange County in the N.C. House, said she did not think the Legislature can force counties to make those contributions. “This is part of the plan to take away power from local government” and give it to the state, Insko said during the meeting. Insko and fellow Orange County Democrat, Sen. Valerie Foushee, were both in attendance. Coston said legislators also had not thought about the logistics and expense of joining a regional authority. “I don’t think they have a clue,” she said.

William “Ben” Rose, who took over as Durham’s social services director in October, said he welcomed the exploration of regional social services, citing the potential for better training for local agencies.

Durham’s Social Services Board is watching the implementation of the law with more caution. “We’re more in a wait-and-see mode. ... Certainly our antennas have been raised,” said Durham Social Services Board Chairwoman Tara Fikes. While she understands regionalism is optional, she still has questions. “What’s the goal of regionalization, which is something we’re unclear about,” Fikes said.

“How do you determine if regionalization is effective? How do you determine who can opt out?. ... What does it do to enhance the quality of services?” Fikes said.

The Durham board is closely following a portion of the bill that will require counties to enter into contracts with the state. These contracts will include measurable performance standards, which the public will be able to see in an online “report card.” The contracts also must address administrative responsibilities.

Durham’s board is still trying to understand the performance measures that will be in those contracts, Fikes said. “That’s front and center right now,” she said. “I imagine that’s going to be our next conversation.”

When the legislation was being put together, Fikes said Durham wanted representation from social services board members. That did not happen, but the group includes two social services directors. Durham County Commissioner Brenda Howerton also is one of four county commissioners serving on the group.

Fikes said Durham will continue to monitor the meetings of the working group. Coston told her board that she will take up her concerns with the Orange County Commissioners in December. Insko wants the study group to hear the concerns of local agencies. “I think there are a lot of details they have not worked through yet,” Insko said.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Working Group Meetings

To find out about Working Group meetings, visit the UNC School of Social Work at www.sog.unc.edu