By Tim Farley, News Editor – A Piedmont attorney is standing up for a Department of Human Services supervisor who claims the agency retaliated against her for comments she made about a 10-year child’s death.
The supervisor, who requested that only her first name be used, has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission based on age, disability and the alleged retaliatory actions by DHS officials.
The DHS employee, who identified herself as Heidi, said she was suspended last Friday for 20 days with pay.
Attorney Rachel Bussett said she believes the suspension was carried out because the Child Protective Services supervisor spoke publicly about the child’s death. DHS was critical of the social worker who conducted the investigation and Heidi, a frontline supervisor in the agency’s child welfare department.
Upper level DHS supervisors were not held accountable for their decisions prior to the child’s death, Heidi said.
“We believe it (suspension) was retaliation for speaking out and not cooperating with them (DHS supervisors),” Bussett said.
Since the EEOC complaint was filed, DHS officials have verbally attacked Bussett and continue to threaten Heidi with civil and criminal penalties in connection with actions she took before and after the suspension.
Bussett said she intends to file a second EEOC complaint. EEOC investigators have 180 days to investigate a case and make an administrative decision. From that point, a lawsuit will likely be filed in federal or state court.
Heidi said in an interview this week that she and a child welfare specialist recommended the 10-year-old be taken from the parents and placed in foster care months before the girl died. However, a district director overruled the recommendation and ordered the child be placed with a family member while they worked with the girl’s mother, who was identified as a long-term drug user. The district director also directed the family receive family-centered services.
Shaquality Cox died in April after suffering an asthma attack. State officials claim the girl died because a family member did not give her the asthma medicine.
However, the investigator and Heidi were disciplined after the girl’s death. The district director was not disciplined.
Heidi and her investigator stopped working the family’s case in February. The referral was made about 30 days earlier.
“After that, we didn’t have anything to do with the case. We never heard from anybody,” she said.
The problem at DHS, Heidi said, is the lack of manpower to investigate a continuing flow of child welfare referrals.
“I’m supposed to have five full-time workers on my team, but I only had three when I was suspended,” she said. “They’ve hired a lot of people lately, but it takes almost a year for someone to be at top performance. CPS (Child Protective Services) is supposed to have 80 workers but they only have 20 investigators right now.”
Heidi said lack of manpower impacts investigators and their ability to work each case and adequately determine the safety for the entire family.
DHS policy requires investigators respond anywhere from one to five days on cases received from the agency hotline. Social workers are given 30 days to complete the investigation.
“But that’s impossible when you have 40 referrals,” Heidi said. “They don’t have time. The expectation from the department is they will work overtime, but they only get paid overtime on backlogged cases, not on new ones.”
About a month after the 10-year-old died, the district director reportedly lied to Heidi on multiple occasions about an internal investigation into the death. During the investigation, DHS tried to reassign Heidi to a secretarial position, but she took family and personal leave for about three months.
Heidi said she felt as if her work was “under a microscope” following the child’s death.
“I was afraid to do anything because you don’t know how they’re going to misconstrue what you’re doing,” she said. “I always felt like somebody was looking over my shoulder. I felt like my workers were also being watched. They made me question my decision-making.”
At one point, Heidi was called in to answer question as part of the internal investigation.
“I didn’t feel like I was being interviewed. It felt more like an interrogation,” she said.
DHS officials continued to apply the pressure to Heidi in May and June at separate meetings.
“On May 30, I showed up with an attorney for a scheduled meeting but they refused to speak to me. I was told I was not entitled to an attorney,” she said.
About two weeks later, DHS officials told Heidi she would be fired if she did not cooperate with the internal investigation.
“This process is intimidating. I continuously told them I needed an attorney,” she said. “I didn’t feel good about it. I felt like I had been verbally raped. It makes you question everything you’ve done in your entire career.”
Heidi claims her supervisors forced her and the front-line investigators to close cases according to the agency’s mandated 30-day closure period.
Heidi also believes “kids are not safe” because of the lack of manpower and investigators are pushed to hurry their work.
“DHS is not doing its job, exactly,” she said.