Turmoil and Mismanagement at Rockbridge Social Services

Aug 25, 2016

Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Billias explains the function of a special investigative grand jury at a community forum about the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services' crisis on August 11.
Credit Jessie Knadler

A report this summer revealed deep problems at the Rockbridge Department of Social Services – problems so deep they may have contributed to the death of at least one child, and allegations of mismanagement and improper document shredding go back years.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler reports.

Rockbridge County residents gathered on August 11 to discuss serious dysfunction with the local Department of Social Services, or DSS.  Around thirty people showed up: Bill Burleson, temporary director of the Rockbridge agency, a handful of Lexington city leaders, at least one School Board member. It was a thin turnout considering the severity of the situation.

The meeting was called in the aftermath of a highly critical report conducted by the social services’ Piedmont Regional Office in Roanoke, which oversees Rockbridge DSS. The report described how the Rockbridge agency had been ignoring, improperly invalidating and even shredding documents pertaining to the physical abuse and-or neglect of children and older adults.

It described a work environment so dysfunctional that when a complaint of suspected child abuse would come in to the Rockbridge office, employees did not record the complaint into a formal database.

SUSAN REESE BACKGROUND:  ….shredding documents…..

Susan Reese, head of the Piedmont Regional Office who spoke at the meeting, explained this disconnect is why it took so long for her office to figure out what was going on. Instead, employees were told to prepare cases in an unofficial Word document and give them to Brenda Perry. Employees weren’t aware of what happened to complaints after that point. Some were investigated, but others were forgotten or destroyed. When employees became suspicious, some began making copies of reports. Complaints to the agency Director went nowhere.  

Such actions may have had fatal consequences. At least one child, a three-month-old infant, died in April after an initial Child Protective Services report assessed the child’s living conditions as “High Risk,” but no additional services were offered.

A criminal investigation is now underway. Brenda Perry has been forced out of her job. Agency Director Meredith Downey resigned. One hundred eighty abuse or neglect cases have been reexamined. Of those, 51 have been reopened for investigation; 27 are considered serious enough to warrant immediate DSS action.

CHRIS BILLIAS: Because of the magnitude and scope of this, this is one of the reasons we’ve decided to impanel a special grand jury to assist us in really looking at all the facets and people to what degree there is criminal culpability.

Chris Billias is Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s attorney.  A special grand jury is comprised of up to 11 citizens tasked with investigating whether a crime has been committed. They’ll likely be impaneled in September.

BILLIAS:  We’re limited to Rockbridge County but we can look at anything that touches upon anything that occurred in Rockbridge County -- so as far as culpability goes, we don’t know how far it goes.

KAREN FLEETWOOD:  It’s heartbreaking. But more than that, it is just so frustrating.

Karen Fleetwood is a mental health professional. She was at the August 11th forum with two former colleagues from the Buena Vista office of Virginia Home-Based Counseling. One of her colleagues revealed at the forum that copies of her professional licenses had been shredded because the Services Supervisor was so opposed to collaborating with outside service providers.

FLEETWOOD:  You’re part of the system and you get blamed for the breakdown within the system. There’s nothing you can do. There’s nobody else you can go to and demand more answers. And you’re already risking your reputation to your family –

She’s referring to the families in crisis for whom she provides counseling. 

FLEETWOOD:  -- and when CPS doesn’t follow through, it’s so frustrating because you see the breakdown in the system and then you see families that continue to live in situations of abuse, poverty and neglect….CPS is supposed to be helping. And they leave them.

Questions arose at the forum about more structural failings—specifically, the lack of oversight at both the Board and Regional Office levels. Yes, the Regional Office published the scathing review, but child welfare advocate Susan Lawrence says she’s been complaining to the Regional Office about Rockbridge DSS for a decade.

SUSAN LAWRENCE:  I’m well aware of the systemic issues that occur in the social service.

Her own adopted son, now in his mid-20s, ended up in eight years of what she describes as unnecessary and hellish foster care because Rockbridge DSS never processed the paperwork that would have allowed Lawrence to adopt him when he was eight. She complained to the Regional office but nothing came of it.

LAWRENCE:     The Boards are supposed to run the agency and be accountable for that. In reality, nobody really tells the Boards that and they don’t receive training on how to run an agency like this. They just rubber stamp everything that comes to them each month. That’s what you see happen. Then if you go to the State level, they say, we’re not really in charge of the local agency because it’s not a State agency. Then you talk to the Board and they say, we’re not in charge of the agency because it’s run by the State…..Then you talk to the [Board of] Supervisors and City Council members and they’re like, we’re definitely not in charge. And so you have all these agencies all across the state that do whatever they want.

Susan Reese agreed at the meeting that the system is “confusing.” She confirmed that localities have a great deal of discretion when it comes to policy; they decide whether to screen out a complaint of abuse or neglect, and that the local social services Board bears much of the responsibility.

Indeed, the Virginia Social Services Handbook for Local Board members states that Administrative Boards are responsible for, among many things, the review of personnel performance and the provision of child welfare services.

But the Regional office’s report found there hasn’t been any background checks completed on Rockbridge DSS personnel since 2001. And not a single Board Member attended the August 11 community forum.

Susan Lawrence filed a complaint against Virginia DSS with the Department of Justice on August 24.