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Social Services Staff Exonerated

An investigator has found that Alexandria Department of Social Services staff behaved properly in not removing children from a home that was ultimately condemned.

The city hired a local attorney, Joseph McCarthy, to conduct the investigation. The case, which had been known to social service staff since 1999, came to light in September of this year when frustrated family members contacted the Gazette Packet.

According to those family members, two children were living in a home that was dirty and unsafe and i they were being left alone for extended periods of time. Social services staff investigated several complaints between 1999 and February of 2001 but deemed the reports to be unfounded and saw no reason to remove the children. Finally, just after Labor Day this year, one of the children told a police officer that there was no food in the house and no adult. The police officer called Child Protective Services and Code Enforcement. Code Enforcement condemned the house and Child Protective Services staff placed the children with their father.

MCCARTHY INTERVIEWED department staff who had taken the earlier complaints involving the household, family members, teachers, members of the Alexandria police and fire departments and the City Attorney’s office, and the guardian ad litem. He also reviewed pertinent sections of the Virginia State code related to the standards and limitations that define child “abuse” and “neglect,” and that define when social workers may remove children from their home. Based on these, McCarthy reached the following findings.

With respect to the conduct of workers in this case, “each DSS social worker involved in this case exercised sound and good judgment in handling the situation as presented to her. I believe each decision in this matter was appropriate to the facts as they presented themselves to each social worker. There is no evidence to support the conclusion that any social worker in this matter should have acted sooner to remove the children from their home”.

With respect to the need to change any department procedures, McCarthy found “One shortcoming is the prompt destruction of earlier reports from a case that is deemed unfounded. Though the cumulative effect of these multiple occurrences did not rise to the level of a threat to the health and safety of any child in this case, destruction of records in unfounded cases handicaps successive social workers in establishing a pattern which might indicate such a threat to a child.”

McCarthy also found that “Procedures were properly followed in this matter.”

BEVERLY STEELE, acting director of the Department of Human Services, pointed out that state law requires that records be destroyed. “We are going to talk with the State about the law that requires us to destroy unfounded cases after a year if there has been no further contact with the family,” she said. “I believe, though, that this would require a change in the law and I don’t believe that we can include this as part of this year’s legislative package.”

Despite McCarthy's conclusions, City Manager Philip G. Sunderland said that his decision to remove Meg O’Regan as director of the Department of Human Services was correct. “Finally, I should note that Mr. McCarthy’s findings do not effect the action I took in September to change the department’s leadership,” he said in a Nov. 25 memorandum to the mayor and City Council. “That decision was not based on…(this)…incident alone, but on a number of incidents and issues arising over the past 18 to 24 months within the department.”