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As a child protective services investigator for the Brunswick County Department of Social Services, Sarah Lesley understands the need for good foster parents.
They provide an invaluable resource to children in abuse and neglect situations—a safe place.
Lesley said she’d like to see more people become foster parents so the department is not always relying on the same families.
“We have some great foster parents, but because of the maximum number of children allowed in the house, some don’t qualify anymore. It seems like we’re using the same ones.”
The goal of the DSS and foster parents is to eventually return children to their parents as long as they are safe from further abuse or neglect.
What do CPS investigators do?
In her nine years as an investigator, Lesley has heard people complain the “mission” of DSS is to remove children from their parents.
That’s not the case at all, she said.
CPS workers like Lesley handle two types of cases: investigations and family assessments. An investigation begins after a report of abuse or severe neglect. The investigator works with law enforcement and can interview children without parental permission.
The investigator must decide whether the report is substantiated within 30 days. If the report is found to have merit, the investigator files a petition in court to take the child into state custody, and foster parents or relatives are asked to take children temporarily.
Lesley explains DSS has to take children out of their homes and place them with foster parents in cases when an abuser is in the home, if the parents are unwilling to make a plan to better the situation, if there is severe neglect or the house itself is unsafe.
At this point, DSS puts together a team of people including the parents to find the resources needed to fix the problem, usually substance abuse or domestic violence counseling, among other resources.
Family assessments, which do not involve law enforcement, are much more common in Brunswick County, Lesley said.
Each assessment lasts a minimum of 45 days. The CPS investigator has to ask the family for their permission to interview the kids and also meets with the entire family together to determine strengths of the family and what resources are in place.
Different reports receive different levels of response, Lesley explained, including immediate, 24 hours and 72 hours.
Most of the time, she meets with the families in their homes.
“We’re required to advise them of the concerns we received,” Lesley said. “I do a comprehensive assessment of the needs the family has, whether it be food or electricity or something else.”
If the situation has improved in 45 days, the case is closed.
Children return home when the parents have eliminated all the problems the investigators have documented.
“We want them to remain with their families, but we always want the children to be safe,” Lesley said.
Economic woes increase reports
Unfortunately, as the economy has worsened over the last couple of years, Lesley and her counterparts have seen an increase in families experiencing a lack of basic necessities and an increase in the number of reports of neglect.
The reports are assigned to the 12 CPS workers on a rotating basis, and still, Lesley recently received two in one day.
The need for foster parents grows as the number of reports grow, she said.
“Families are losing their jobs, so there’s been a snowball effect. A lot of families work in construction [and related professions]. They are out of work and losing their homes.”
Lesley said DSS helps as much as it can in these cases, relying on help from Brunswick Family Assistance, the county health department and local churches to provide necessities. Local stores like Food Lion and Walmart also help out by donating gift cards for emergency groceries.
Lesley said a lack of healthcare is also becoming more prevalent because many families have too much income to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance.
“We really have to be creative with our resources,” Lesley said.
With the times as difficult as they are, she said more families are opening up to DSS to find assistance so they can keep their children.
In addition to providing emergency necessities, DSS also provides parenting classes through the Communities in Schools parenting education program, substance abuse assistance through Coastal Horizons and domestic violence protection and support at Hope Harbor Home.
If in doubt, make a report
Lesley encourages people who suspect neglect or abuse in their neighborhoods, families or schools to report it to the Brunswick County DSS.
“If you see things, but you feel it’s not enough to call about, it is,” she said. “Everyone is a mandated reporter and is expected to call if they feel like [mistreatment] is going on.”
The majority of the time, the problems can be corrected with the proper plans and resources to help the families in need.
That’s why Lesley has stayed with her job as an investigator, even though it’s stressful.
“It really can be a rewarding profession,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of children get adopted, and I’ve seen others go back home. You may not see the results for awhile, but they happen.”