In August, Sherry Flanagan stood before Virginia’s Board of Social Services and made a plea.

“I encourage you all to help Pittsylvania County,” said Flanagan, then-director of the county’s Department of Social Services. “We are outside of the realm of what we can do.”

A social media battle had been raging in the southern county that state Department of Social Services Chief Deputy J.R. Simpson described as “one of the worst cases of cyber bullying that I have ever seen.”

DSS Commissioner Duke Storen said one member of the local Board of Social Services has been, “actively disparaging and working against the local department.”

The state conducted an “organizational assessment” to present a clear picture of the department and better understand the primary allegations against the Pittsylvania department — essentially that it has a hostile work environment — but found that it has largely been performing well, with most staff members reporting a positive atmosphere.

Despite the report, Flanagan was fired this summer, and the local board that did it has yet to hire a replacement. In October, she approached the state board again, and in an emotional speech asked the group to prevent anything similar from happening to anyone else, because “as long as a locality can come in” and “choose not to like social services,” she said, there is no protection for a local director.

Some county officials have started the process of taking over some of the department’s functions, like human resources and finances, even while the state board is investigating whether one member should be removed. The disputes have blossomed from social media platforms into the court system. And earlier this month, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the department, alleging its mishandling of a case lead to the death of a toddler.

Practically though, there’s not much the state can do in situations like this. In Virginia, localities ultimately have autonomy over their departments of social services, and some worry that setup results in what can be vast disparities in how services are delivered.

Over the past five years there have been a handful of highly-publicized cases of local Departments of Social Services going wrong. In 2013, in Richmond, social workers were found to be leaving children in dangerous environments to keep foster care numbers low at the direction of senior managers who doctored reports to judges and interfered with the ability of workers to consult with city attorneys, a state report found.

Just a few years ago in Rockbridge County, a supervisor was allegedly shredding reports of child abuse, among a litany of other problems identified in a report.

But beyond those unique cases of things going very wrong, all throughout the state local departments grapple every day with worker shortages and rely on inexperienced staff members to provide essential services to vulnerable populations — which has only gotten worse amid the opioid epidemic.

When the Virginia Board of Social Services completed its investigation into Rockbridge County’s local board this summer, it presented recommendations to Storen with a caveat: The state has little authority over local agencies, even when severe troubles arise.

“So whatever we do, we have to recognize that that’s an existing challenge,” said board member William “Buckey” Boone at the state board’s August meeting.

The state can’t step in and take over a local department if services are inadequate or if something goes wrong. It can offer guidance and support to a local department, which it often does, and the commissioner can terminate employees, but beyond that its hands are tied unless the locality asks for help.

That’s because Virginia is one of only nine other states that run their social services systems as state-supervised and locally-administered. The 120 local departments are entirely autonomous and independent in how they carry out the state’s guidelines, while the state’s authority beyond providing that guidance and oversight is limited.

“And what I can tell you is: If you’ve seen one local department, you’ve seen one local department,” said Cathy Pemberton, a recently-retired DSS employee who worked at the state, regional and local levels over her 34-year career. “They’re all their own little kingdoms.”

‘The kids suffer because of that’

Many who work inside or with the social services system argue that a locally-administered system works well for Virginia.

Or, at least, they don’t advocate for letting the state start administering it — in part because of the massive funding such a shift would require. Right now the localities cover at least 15.5 percent of the local department’s budget, with some paying more if they’re able.

Some advocates, such as Valerie L’Herrou, staff attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Center for Family Advocacy, aren’t necessarily opposed to the way Virginia’s set up, but they have concerns when it comes to child welfare.

Children don’t have a voice in how local government is run, L’Herrou points out, and that side of the system may benefit from state or regional control. North Carolina is in the process of changing its locally-controlled system to provide more regional oversight.

There are some functions that the state handles on its own, such as licensing for child daycare centers and adult assisted-living facilities.

When it comes to the bulk of social services functions, though, most argue that the localities should be in charge, in part because Virginia is very diverse. People in Wise County, for example, should probably be making the decisions for the residents there rather than officials in Richmond.

But in a chronically underfunded system riddled with retention, recruitment and training problems at all levels, a locally-administered system seems to exacerbate the existing challenges that DSS faces, as some localities grapple with lack of funding and struggle to hire experienced, well-qualified staff to offer essential programs like child protective services and foster care support.

It means that children and families can have vastly different experiences with their local departments based on their zip codes.

“I think that localities that have smaller budgets — unfortunately the kids suffer because of that,” said Allison Gilbreath, policy analyst with Voices for Virginia’s Children, an advocacy group. “I’m not certain everyone in the entire state understands that.”

The resource divide

Affluent localities that can afford to pay a higher salary draw more experienced social workers, who are likely to stay longer and finish their training, which typically takes two years to complete. Those workers are more prepared all-around to address the trauma many children and families are experiencing when they turn to social services.

But increasingly, social workers all over the state aren’t staying for two years. And those localities that struggle to pay staff more than the minimum required $29,930 salary — most often rural counties —  find themselves sending inexperienced, untrained social workers out to respond to child abuse allegations or to meet with foster families.

“If a small county that has three or four staff in child protective services loses two staff, it’s really difficult for them and it can put them in a real bind to just provide basic services,” said Boone, the state board member, who lives in Washington County.

Boone said he likes local control in Virginia and wants people who live in Craig or Lee counties, for example, to be making the decisions for those residents. It’s when the departments aren’t funded at the levels they require that issues of inequity set in.

However, there are also cases when a department will simply have different priorities than those who develop the polices. It’s not that they’re not following the state’s guidelines, but that they might place less importance on one practice over others.

Family engagement — the practice of including the family in decision-making — is an example, L’Herrou said.

“Family engagement is something that is part of the federal legislation,” she said. “It’s something that they’re supposed to do, but some locals treat it as an annoying thing they try to do as little as possible, and other locals fully incorporate it into their practice and find that it actually has better outcomes.”

Gilbreath recently completed a listening tour to hear from foster families around the state about their experiences, and to learn about kinship foster care, which is placing a child with a relative such as a grandparent if they must be removed from their home.

“We know from data that they’re better off with their relatives,” Gilbreath said.

Yet in Virginia only 6 percent of children who enter foster care go to live with a relative, while the national rate was 32 percent in 2016, according to Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“We wanted to know why we weren’t utilizing this program more, and it really does depend on the locality where a young child or a youth comes into care,” Gilbreath said. “For some localities, it’s more of a practice to look for kin as quickly as possible, but for other localities it’s not necessarily the practice.”

Andrew Crawford, president of the Virginia League of Social Services Executives, said that his organization has been looking at where the relationship between state and local agencies can be improved.

“And the general consensus is, yeah, no brainer, we all want to work with the state,” he said. The group is developing ways to approach situations resulting from resource differences, which he said have especially cropped up in the last few years with increasing demands.

In 2017, for example, the General Assembly passed a law that required local departments to respond to any child protective services complaint for a child under two years old within 24 hours. Crawford said it’s a good law, and really tries to address the issue of substance-exposed infants — but not every department has the resources to meet those requirements.

“I have a county who supported me, but there are some local Departments of Social Services that probably have the same number of staff that they did when the law went into effect,” said Crawford, who is the director of the Bedford County Department of Social Services.

The biggest challenge in a state-supervised, locally-administered system may be, then, that the state cannot control local budgets. So when it tries to put in new, proven procedures that really do protect people, some departments struggle to comply.

“I was always kind of jealous of states that were state-administered, like West Virginia,” Pemberton said. “If they saw a problem, the state could say, ‘Wow, we need to fix this — local offices, you need to do this starting tomorrow.’ And they could have an immediate result.

“In Virginia, it always seemed like we were pushing a big rock uphill all by ourselves.”

An antiquated training program

In a locally-administered system, the county or city holds a great deal of responsibility. Which is good, some argue, because it requires they become involved in the challenges that may be plaguing their communities.

They have to pay for the social workers who deal with child abuse or help foster kids who cannot live with their parents anymore, so the local leaders see the problems up close.

Most of the time, state officials argue, things run smoothly within social services departments.

“Everybody is for child welfare,” said Storen, the DSS commissioner. “These are not controversial issues.”

Instances when a locality goes rogue and decides not to follow the state’s guidance are rare, and when they do happen they’re usually rooted in the workforce problems that beset the entire system.

“Whenever you talk about any of these concerns of variations or differences, a lot of that can be traced back to consistency of our workforce and ensuring we have a well-trained, well-educated, well-experienced workforce,” said Carl Ayers, the state’s director of family services.

Often smaller counties find themselves operating as makeshift training grounds for the larger localities, said Pemberton, the retired state social services worker. Social workers fresh out of college will start at one department where they can get experience, then hop to another that boasts a higher salary, or even a nonprofit organization, which also often pays more than local departments.

But pay is just the beginning. Ayers and Storen point to the antiquated training model, which prevents them from properly training workers before they go out into the field. The state is responsible for training all workers at the 120 local departments.

“It is not an appropriate training model for a workforce that is used to having technology, that is very young,” Ayers said during a recent state Board of Social Services meeting, adding that he is very concerned about “having staff that are out there that are not equipped to deal with families.”

Last year the Butler Institute for Families at the University of Denver developed a report for Virginia’s Department of Social Services outlining its recommendations for improving training across the state.

When it comes to child welfare training, the report notes the “inhibiting structure of state-supervised, county-administered systems.” It suggests that Virginia implement an academy-style approach to training, in which new workers attend training immediately after they are hired.

But putting that in practice would be a massive, expensive undertaking.

“The number of trainers and the number of courses and the cost of doing that is something we don’t have sufficient resources to do today,” Storen told the Board of Social Services. “And I don’t anticipate that the money will fall from the sky, either. We’re advocating for that, we may get more resources, but we don’t know.”

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, has said he is considering introducing legislation for the upcoming General Assembly session in an attempt to ease some of the difficulties facing DSS, but would not elaborate on the nature of those proposals, which he said are still in the works.

“We’re committed to finding a way to make these changes in conjunction with the General Assembly and the administration,” Storen said in an interview. “If we had more resources we know we could use them well, and if we have the same amount of resources, we know we could use them better.”

The state’s authority

In exercising oversight over local departments, the state visits each at least once a year. Those with high caseloads are typically visited more often.

If it detects a problem, the first step is to alert the local agency, Storen said, and tell them to change practice.

“Most of the time, when we bring things to light and we provide that level of direction, a local agency will comply and move in that direction,” he said.

Should an agency not move forward for some reason, though, Storen does have the power to terminate an employee, such as a director or a supervisor.

But the more frequent scenario is that the state steps in to assist the department when it asks for help.

That’s what happened earlier this year in Petersburg. More than half of the residents rely on programs from its Department of Social Services, but it has been struggling with recruitment. Storen placed a state employee with the department to help with their staffing problems, and it has since held a “reopening” to signify a fresh start.

But the state cannot put someone on a locality’s board, for example, which is often responsible for hiring decisions.

“Lots of local boards are just the city manager or their appointees,” Storen said. “If they are not doing a good job, there’s not a lot of recourse for the state agency. Luckily that doesn’t happen often, but it is one of the limitations and we do run into it sometimes.”

Recurring crises

Many people probably underestimate how difficult social work is, Crawford, the president of the League of Social Services Executives, said.

“It’s not just the salary,” he said. “It’s the work hours and the stress and the risk you take. Think about the risk these people take going into someone’s home.”

They’re out visiting homes that they may not know much about, where people in difficult situations, often fighting poverty, worry about losing their children.

There are many other important funding requirements that are vying for General Assembly dollars, Crawford said. It’s very difficult to choose between funding DSS so that it can upgrade its training model, for example, and putting money toward bridge improvements or education.

But until the state is able to bolster its system to tackle the high turnover rate, the recruitment problems and the rampant training challenges, social workers will continue to be sent into the field before they’re ready and localities will continue to struggle to retain staff.

“Until we improve the pay for local agency employees, there are going to be recurring problems,” Boone said. “Maybe not on a level of Rockbridge, but there will continue to be crises at local agencies.”