From The Center Square: Buncombe County official tight-lipped with lawmakers about social service incident

Buncombe County Health and Human Services sign
Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

By Nyamekye Daniel, originally published by The Center Square. The Center Square is a project of the 501(c)(3) Franklin News Foundation, headquartered in Chicago.

(The Center Square) – Buncombe County Health and Human Services Director Talmadge “Stoney” Blevins gave North Carolina lawmakers limited details about his agency’s decision to place a 9-year-old girl in a drug- and needle-filled hotel room.

During the two-and-half hours of testimony before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services on Oct. 13, Blevins refused to answer specific questions about the incident and the agency’s handling of it.

Blevins said lawmakers would have to get a court ruling to release the records protected by law, or he would be willing to provide more details in a closed-door meeting with members of the agency’s board and North Carolina Department of Human and Health Services officials.

“If we discuss a child’s confidential information in a public body where folks can come and watch on TV, I feel like we would be violating the true intent of the law,” Blevins said.

Black Mountain police officers arrested the 9-year-old girl’s father in March during a traffic stop, when illicit drugs and needles were found in the car.

According to Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Buncombe, Buncombe County Social Work Services instructed authorities to leave the child with her father’s friend in a hotel room. Officers did not think that it was in the child’s best interest, however, and took her to the police station instead. She was placed later with relatives from another state.

According to North Carolina law, the agency cannot directly or indirectly disclose information about people receiving social services unless it is part of the administrative process of providing the services. The committee voted to subpoena Blevins to testify late last month.

“We want to talk about the process. We know that there is very sensitive information that’s confidential. We are not interested in names of individuals,” Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, co-chairperson of the committee, said. “Since it has been several months, the incident has occurred, we’d like to know if there’s been changes and improvements.”

Since the incident, Blevins said the Buncombe County agency has composed a mutual aid agreement in writing with the police department and implemented a new policy requiring a social worker to take a report at the site of an emergency call where a child is involved.

“We’ve put a policy in place that, like I said, goes above and beyond what we’re required to do,” Blevins said. “We’ve gotten great reviews from the state office on this policy.”

Blevins denied allegations Buncombe County Social Work Services advised the police officers to leave the child in the hotel room but said he could not comment on the accuracy of police report, in which officers said it was Buncombe County Social Work Services recommendation. Blevins believes there was a breakdown in communication between Buncombe County Social Work Services and Black Mountain Police.

Blevins also refused to answer specific questions about the experience of the Buncombe County Social Work Services employee on the call or whether the employee was reprimanded.

As an oversight committee, Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, said, the panel of lawmakers should have access to information or documentation related to the agency’s actions.

“I think that one of us, at the very least, has some misperceptions about confidentiality and what is and what’s not,” Perry said. “I do not believe it is a blanket black box that prevents you from having any discussion about anything related to your department. In fact, it feels a little like ketchup and kind of being put on everything right now.”


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