A lack of training put more than 100 vulnerable mountain children in risky living situations.
That's what investigators found in the state's takeover of Cherokee's Department of Social Services.
A News 13 investigation found the lack of training isn't isolated to Cherokee County.
It's a tough job and, according to several mountain Social Service offices, finding qualified workers is even tougher. Job posting for these positions ask for a minimum a masters in social work, but News 13 found instances where employees were hired having less than the minimum qualifications, which means more training. But, as News 13 uncovered, required training is not always available.
“You want to see that picture again,” Megan Penland’s client asked as she sat in the stylist's chair ready to get her hair colored.
Ever update your look? Then you know, change doesn't always come easy.
“The purple and blue need to be right in there,” the client showed Penland.
Behind each brush stroke, you want Penland's nearly two decades of experience.
“They're always coming in with new ideas they're wanting us to do, and we have to be able to do that for them,” said Penland, who works at 3's Company Hair.
It's why the entire salon a week ago went south to Orlando for eight hours of continuing education all hairstylists need yearly to be licensed.
“It's pretty much back to back classes for three days,” said Penland.
That's only a third less than the training behind the knock your family could get at your door.
“To have social workers that really are committed to this type of work is very important,” said Jerrie McFalls, Henderson County DSS director.
State law requires a minimum of 72 hours of pre-service training before a child welfare worker can be in contact with clients. Child Protective Service workers need an additional 18 hours, according to state law. Finding applicants with that experience is easier for McFalls than others, in part because it's the second largest office in the west and has more resources than others.
“We have applicants and hire people with many different degrees -- some masters, some bachelors, some in social work, some in other fields,” said McFalls,
But many western counties struggle. Officials in Clay, Transylvania, Madison, Mitchell and even Buncombe counties said the biggest road block to hiring social workers is "a shrinking pool of fully qualified candidates."
It's evident in Cherokee County, where child protective services staff, including the supervisor, started as social worker trainees, meaning they had less than the minimum qualifications. McFalls said those who don't meet prerequisites can still be hired.
“But then you would have to work for years in the social work field to become a qualified social worker III or a social worker who could do child protective services,” said McFalls.
In Cherokee County, supervisors and others in key roles also didn't have annual required training. That wasn't caught or dealt with until the safety of children were put at risk by the illegal use of custody and visitation agreements, or CVA’s.
“They were working diligent. They had good teamwork. But they just didn't have the know how, the training and the adherence to policy and practice,” said Robert Cochran, acting director Child Welfare Services, Cherokee County DSS.
The state can track training
The state has the ability to track whether county DSS workers are keeping up with the requirements.
“We report to them our training hours for each worker, what specific training each worker's had,” said McFalls.
News 13 made an open records request to the state DHHS office in the weeks prior to this story, asking for the number of employees who were unable to complete required trainings for 16 mountain counties in 2017, 2016 and 2015. To date, that request has not been answered.
Yearly, child welfare workers must complete 24 hours of continuing education, either through equivalent programs at schools like Western Carolina University or the state mandated training. But Jackson County's DSS director said there aren't enough training slots in the west for all first year trainings. Four of the 20 courses this year are in Buncombe County, the next closest are in Greensboro, Charlotte and Fayetteville.
“It can be a challenge to get all of your workers registered and in a training that they're able to participate in,” said McFalls.
Solutions involve simulators
One possible solution, that Henderson County’s DSS is taking a closer look at, is the creation of simulation training labs using universities like Western Carolina.
“Even NASCAR has simulators to learn how to drive a car safely before you wreck it into a wall at 210 miles per hour. So, our question is, our social workers, do they not deserve something of that nature?” said Kevin Marino, Henderson County DSS social work program administrator.
While the cost of change can be a tough sell, local lawmakers said, for the kids’ sake, it's change they can't afford not to make.
“I think maybe more training, but there is also a court problem,” said Rep. John Ager, (D-Buncombe County, District 115).
“These are people who are the first line of defense for some of our communities' most vulnerable residents, and ,so, I think we can do better for them by giving them better training,” said Rep. Brian Turner, (D-Buncombe County, District 116).
The state recently condensed the pre-service training from four weeks to three weeks, putting some of it online, but it still requires eight classroom days of training. In some instances, one course has to be taken before another course, which can delay training.
What News 13 heard from mountain counties
When we asked mountain counties what their biggest obstacles to hiring were, here’s what they told News 13:
Madison County: “Our biggest challenge in hiring is sharing the same labor pool with neighboring Buncombe County. For example, salaries of CW and economic services caseworkers in Buncombe County are almost $20,000 more per year than the salaries that our county is able to offer for identical positions.”
Clay County: “Lack of trained social workers in the field of social work (and that have completed the necessary training); difficulty of job that comes with high responsibility/liability.”
Yancey County: “Workers locating to rural communities, training not offered locally and is difficult to get in to, salary scales less in rural counties. These issues make it difficult to attract social workers with BSW and/or MSW degrees. Additionally, new social workers come to smaller counties, receive the initial training and experience, and relocate to larger counties where the salaries are much higher.”
Mitchell County: “Finding qualified applicants.”
Transylvania: “A. Lack of qualified applicants. B. Salary competition with Buncombe County DSS.”
When News 13 asked how long it takes them to fill vacancies when social workers leave:
Transylvania County: “On average, the length of time it takes to fill an empty position -- 45 to 60 days.”
Buncombe County: “On average, over the last three years it has taken 60 days from the day a social work position is vacated until an employee starts in that position. This does not include any training time necessary (pre-service for child welfare can take five weeks) before someone can begin working.”
Clay County: “Two to three months to fill the position."