By Kate Martin, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
A state legislative committee has voted to subpoena Buncombe County’s Health and Human Services director to get answers as to why a social worker thought it was appropriate to leave a 9-year-old girl in the company of a man she didn’t know in a hotel room filled with drugs and hundreds of used hypodermic needles.
Legislators in the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services voted 15-8 along party lines Tuesday in favor of subpoenaing Buncombe Health and Human Services Director Stoney Blevins, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.
Subpoenas to testify before the state legislature are rare. Blevins will be subpoenaed to testify during an Oct. 13 committee hearing regarding a March 20 incident in which Black Mountain police officers asked Buncombe County’s DSS for help with a 9-year-old girl after arresting her father.
State Sen. Chuck Edwards said during the hearing that police officers were told by a social worker to leave the girl in a hotel room with a man she didn’t know. Officers discovered hundreds of used needles along with drugs in the room.
Edwards said he has been unable to get straight answers out of Blevins even after a conversation. Blevins said he can’t talk about specific child welfare cases because of confidentiality laws.
“I think it is critical for this committee to thoroughly understand why anyone thought it would be OK to leave a 9-year-old girl in a hotel room with a stranger that contained needles and drugs,” Edwards said.
In a Sept. 15 email to Edwards, Blevins said he would be “honored to meet with the committee to talk and answer questions about our child welfare system. No subpoena is necessary.”
However, even with the subpoena, a county spokeswoman said Blevins would be limited in what he could reveal about the specific incident.
Buncombe County spokeswoman Lillian Govus said unless the subpoena is from a judge, Blevins couldn’t testify about the particulars even if the meeting is behind closed doors.
“The legal direction is that information can’t be shared before the House or Senate,” Govus said. “They are still considered the public in regard to this.”
Father arrested, options for child limited
On March 20, police in Black Mountain pulled over a car that was swerving over the white line. Inside were three adults and a 9-year-old girl, the police report of the traffic stop says. Officers said they found drugs and needles on or near all of the adults, including uncapped hypodermic needles, marijuana and methamphetamine.
“There were needles under the seats and in the door pockets of the car. One was located in a glove inside a door pocket,” a police report says. “Officer had to use extreme caution due to the number of needles located.”
Police arrested all three adults, one of whom was the girl’s father. Officers said that the father told them they could leave the girl in a hotel room with a man named “Spencer,” but when asked, the girl told police that his name was actually “Stanley,” she didn’t know his last name and she wanted to go home.
Home was in Tennessee.
When reached by police, a relative said he couldn’t drive at night to pick her up.
Officers traveled to the hotel room and talked with “Stanley,” the report says. He told officers that he had met the girl for the first time that day and volunteered to watch her. “Stanley” said officers could search the room.
So, they did. Within the room they found methamphetamine, other drugs and 200-300 used hypodermic needles, they said.
“Officers located needles on the beds, the nightstands, TV stand and the bathroom. In the bathroom there was a plastic container nearly full of used needles,” the police report says.
Officers then called Buncombe County HHS. The report says a social worker told police that “DSS did not respond to these situations.”
Officers explained that the parent wanted to leave the girl with “Stanley.” The report says the DSS worker demanded multiple times to take a report over the phone. At one point, the report says, she advised officers to leave the girl in the custody of “Stanley.”
Officers told her they might take him to jail and sarcastically asked if he should leave the girl alone in the hotel room.
“The DSS worker said we could leave the child in the room, but she hopes we would not do that,” the report says.
The officer hung up, and the DSS worker called back and asked him to complete the report. “I told her I did not have time to do that, I had to find a safe place for the child. I ended the phone call.”
Confidentiality to limit testimony, accountability
While Blevins said that confidentiality rules forbade him from talking about this specific case, he did entertain a hypothetical question.
“We would never support leaving a child in a hotel room with a stranger and 300 used needles, as a blanket statement,” Blevins said Tuesday.
“As an agency that works with parents experiencing substance use disorder and children exposed to multiple dangers every day, our agency would never give that guidance.”
Response times to child welfare reports vary depending on how much risk the child is in. Child welfare officials rank reported cases of abuse and respond either immediately, within 24 hours or within 72 hours depending on the severity of the allegation. The intake process can take a while, as it requires people who report abuse to answer many questions.
In almost all cases where a child is young or at immediate risk, child welfare workers are required to respond immediately.
But often county level workers fail to appropriately rank the risk of a case, according to a legislative report completed last year.
In nearly 1-in-4 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, child welfare workers consider outside guidance in addition to statewide policy for child welfare cases, the report said.
It is important to screen cases correctly, or agencies risk violating parents’ constitutional rights to raise their children. Taking a child from a parent is considered a last resort and is usually done to prevent imminent harm or maltreatment of a child.
Blevins confirmed he will show up to talk with legislators once he receives the subpoena.
Starting in June, Blevins directed Buncombe County social workers to respond to the scene of all law enforcement requests and shared the protocol with county law enforcement agencies.
Such situations include when the only parent of a child is being arrested and is thus not able to plan for another adult to care for the child.