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Overworked, undertrained, not supported

A group of former Surry County Department of Social Services employees are offering a response to interim director Wayne Black’s recent report to the county commissioners on Department of Social Services staffing.

They also commented on the recent murder case involving the death of 4-year-old Skyler Wilson, whose adoptive parents, Joseph “Joe” Paul Wilson and Jodi Ann Wilson, age 38, have been charged.

The four former social service workers asked that their names not be used, for fear of reprisals as well as the possibility of creating issues for those still working for the department.

“We all have a lot of years of experience with DSS and we have said lots of this to anyone who would listen for a long time,” one of the workers, known as Marge, said. “It got to the point where we couldn’t continue to work in the environment, we were working in. We are talking so maybe people will listen and cause some changes.”

Lack of training, staff

One of the major issues the women took exception with was the training systems in place at the state and county level. Upon getting hired staff are sent to three weeks of state-mandated training that they said was insufficient. It was described as “not real-world practice” but rather classroom study, reading, note taking, and learning to do paperwork.

“No one can prepare you to be a child welfare worker, the training that the state provides is not enough,” Marge said.

New hires are sent back to the county with the expectation that more training will be done, but that was not the experience of this group, who said it was rare to get the full complement of training. One of the workers known as Shelly said, “When you get back, it’s sort of sink or swim and so many people wash right out.”

“When you go back to your county, they should implement a training program there which I would say most of the smaller counties do not have because of the resources we do not have,” she said.

Black told the commissioners staffing is the major issue at the local department. One of the former workers known as Wendy agreed. “My entire time at DSS, I can count on one hand the number of times we were fully staffed.”

“We have had to fight and beg for more positions over the years and it’s still proved to not be enough,” Wendy said and referred to Black adding Vanguard Professional Services to manage out-of-county visits.

She said that is only a partial fix. “They have kids placed everywhere from Alabama to Greensboro to Fayetteville and have to see them every month. Vanguard can do it, but they are not in every county and they can only visit two of three months. Surry DSS still must go once a quarter to see these kids,” she said.

“You come in with zero experience and you’re handed a full case load like someone whose been there for years and are still expected to meet the state requirements and the state recommended case load,” the former work known as Fran explained.

“For the foster workers their state recommended case load is 15 and I can think of maybe two times that staff had 15 kids. You know right now, there is one foster care social worker and two supervisors for 120 kids in their care. So, you can do the math there. There is no one who ever has a case load of 15.”

These women say that they gave warnings repeatedly to get the attention of anyone who would listen. Too many cases meant that some child protective services home visits were not happening as they should, “Which is very scary that there were some kids who literally had not been seen in a month or two due to lack of staff. It’s not people being lazy, its due to a lack of staffing.”

In the summer of 2021, they noted the county had only two staff workers in Child Protective Services, one of whom was doing investigation and assessment and the other was performing in-home services. Fran said, “Every time a report comes in it is screened and there may be 10 to 15 a day.”

“So, you got one person to do that and also contact the hospital, therapists, or sit with the child. It’s completely unrealistic to think that an agency can have two staff members to do all those things and do it the right way.”

Black told the county commissioners that a lack of staff led to more work for fewer hands, which leads to frustration and to errors. Wendy said it has been that way for some time. “This is not new, not new at all.”

While the group did not discuss specifics of the Skyler Wilson case, they said the department had no authority to do home visits to check on Skyler. While he had been in foster care, the Wilson’s had completed the adoption process and were his legal guardians.

“At one point they were fosters but they were adopted so there was no follow up on that. Nobody dropped the ball in the fact that they weren’t seeing the kids monthly,” Wendy said

No Support

The group reported mental and physical health issues like weight gain/loss and sleep deprivation as after-effects of working for DSS. One thing they said would have been of great help to them would be professional counseling services “because we see the worst of the worst,” Shelly said.

Beginning before the pandemic, they said concerns were raised and they followed those warnings up in the summer of 2021 with multiple attempts of correspondence. Fran said, “We were telling them that Foster had up to 34 active cases for one person and that staffing was an issue, but nothing was worked on: zero.”

When they reported these issues to supervisors, Wendy said they got answers like, “We’re going to work on that, thank you.” Another response they were given that elicited a strong reaction from the group was, “Read the policy.”

“I would love to read the policy, if you’d give me a couple weeks,” Marge said and noted she never got that time and instead she quit the department. “When you’re in the middle of a million things and you need an answer ‘read the policy’ is not a good answer.”

Fran added. “Even the supervisors are overworked. With some missing structure and people, it makes everybody just feel chaos from top to bottom.”

Some of that chaos leads to trouble on the staff, “There is no hand holding. There have been multiple times where if you cry because you have just seen a baby be shaken or seen a baby in the hospital with bruises it’s like ‘you need to get over it,” Shelly said. They noted that EMS gets a debrief when they have a fatality, but there is no support system in place for DSS workers.

“Some of it is pay but being a social worker is a passion for a lot of people and none of us went into it for the money. Had the environment been different, had we been supported, and maybe a little more pay would be nice: we would not be gone.”

“I couldn’t tell you how hard it was to make the decision to leave. The job is not what I had a problem with,” Marge said. “I love working with kids and families and loved reunifications.”

A lot of their frustrations cannot be fixed by Surry County leaders but rather by state level policymakers. Policies are written in such a way that it is difficult to classify something as abuse or neglect, for example.

“The biggest reason we want to be heard is we want the best for these families and these kids. We want the system to improve; people deserve better. With the high caseloads and the lack of staff, that’s how things get messed up, or missed,” Wendy said.

They expressed a need for the county to have someone monitoring changes to state social services policies and working to educate the staff and perhaps to add counseling services for a staff stretched thin.

Shelly expressed the frustration of the group, “Its soul sucking when you’re passionate about things and then leave so jaded.”

“There needs to be somebody who cares enough to change the environment,” Fran suggested. “We can say change policy but what’s going on here is there must someone to go in there and observe without bias, and then promote. Go to a career fair, go to social workers, and make it appealing. There are people like us who want to do the job.”



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