City social services under fire

MANASSAS PARK — A state investigation of the city’s social services department has uncovered significant problems in programs ranging from food stamp distribution to the placement of abused children.

The Virginia Department of Social Services, in a report from September 2001, cited “low morale” in the department, as well as poor management skills on the part of then-director Noreen Slater, who was recently elected to the City Council on May 7.

The state found:

– An “extremely high” number of children were in permanent foster care, which the state considers to be an option of last resort;

-Court orders in some foster care cases did not exist, with many of the existing orders “generally out of compliance;”

– Eight of 15 food stamp cases reviewed had possible errors in amounts handed out;

– Two-thirds of the department’s Medicaid cases contain financial eligibility errors;

– The department failed to keep any “clocks” on how long Temporary Assistance To Needy Families recipients had been receiving money, leaving those recipients at risk of having their benefits cut of unexpectedly;

– Between 1998 and 2001, the department was forced to return Adult Protective Service funding for failing to properly document cases.

“We found these issues in the Manassas Park Department of Social Services to be significant. When you have those types of quality service issues, it concerns us,” said Jack B. Frazier, regional director for the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Typically, such detailed department reviews are not released to the public, in accordance with state guidelines. But a copy of the report was obtained by the Potomac News/Manassas Journal Messenger.

The state rarely conducts extensive reviews of local social services departments, according to Frazier. In the case of Manassas Park, a state investigation was requested by City Manager David Reynal, who contacted the state in November 2000.

Reynal said he was troubled by a number of factors — including an unusually high turnover in the department and exit interviews full of negative comments about work conditions.

“I was concerned about program effectiveness and operations in the department,” Reynal said.

State investigators found many of the department’s 13 employees blaming Slater for what was described as a “lack of communication, respect and organization.” A questionnaire elicited “very emotional responses about the director’s style and, in general, the work culture.”

The report suggested that Slater seek training in topics such as professionalism, courtesy, how to deliver negative news, gender communication and respecting diversity.

“Somehow in a small office, the line has blurred between professional and personal responsibilities,” the report said.

Slater would not be around to go to training. By the end of October 2001, Melissa Kurutz, a department supervisor, was handling the office’s day-to-day operations. Slater retired from the department’s directorship on Jan. 1, and Kurutz maintains the position of acting director at this time.

Due to a training session in Richmond on Monday, Kurutz was unavailable for comment concerning the issues surrounding the department.

When asked about the report, Slater defended the department’s record under her 23-year directorship. She mentioned survey results in the report that showed a positive view of the department among members of the Manassas Park community, as well as other government agencies in Manassas and Prince William County.

“You don’t get that kind of positive response from the professional community unless you deserved it,” she said.

The report mentioned a high number of children in permanent foster care, including two disabled children who had been under the care of their grandparents for more than five years.

“Interviews with the grandparents reveal that they have consistently conveyed to MPDSS that their intent was to adopt these children,” the report said.

Slater maintains that the number of the foster care cases in Manassas Park, in fact, is extremely small, with most permanent foster care cases involving relatives of the children.

“In order to get adoption, you need to get rid of parental rights. There is a lot of emotional, traumatic stuff that goes into that,” she said.

A look at the numbers, in fact, shows that there are only 15 children living in foster care at this time in Manassas Park.

All foster care cases reviewed by the state had “significant problems” with court orders. Some had no court orders at all, a situation that might have led Manassas Park to lose federal government funding for its foster care program.

In the case of the department’s food stamp program, eight of 15 files pulled had mistakes that may have caused a recipient to receive the wrong amount of benefits. The income of one recipient was miscalculated. The state found high turnover among the workers in the program, whom the state described as having little supervision and training.

Of the Medicaid cases reviewed, 62 percent had errors involving whether a recipient was financially eligible. Some involved income. In other cases, cost-of-living increases were never calculated.

Social service workers are required to keep “clocks” on those receiving funds under the Temporary Assistance To Needy Families program. Under the Welfare Reform Act, TANF funds are cut off after a maximum 60 months. Those in the Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare lose funds after 24 months.

In Manassas Park, none of the clocks were correct, meaning families were receiving inaccurate warnings of when money would stop arriving.

The report, which Slater said was requested by both her and Reynal, documented a department in a state of flux, due to a high rate of turnover, according to Slater. It ignored statewide recognition received by the department in previous years.

“If people are trying to discredit me, they can’t do it,” she said. “I couldn’t have stood up and run for office and had the kind of support I had running for office if I had anything to hide.”

The problems mentioned in the report are more widespread in the state than Frazier or Reynal would want to admit, Slater said.

“It’s always easy to blame the boss,” she said.

Since the completion of the report in September 2001, the state has worked closely with Manassas Park to correct the problems discovered, according to Frazier and Reynal. A new report on the department is expected in coming weeks.

“We’re moving forward. And I’m confident that the results of the review will be positive,” Reynal said.

Similar Posts