Child Abuse reports ignored by Rockbridge
social services, report finds
Rockbridge County, VA – Reports of child abuse and neglect did not just fall through the cracks at the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services, an internal review has found. Some of the reports were fed into a paper shredder, never to be investigated by the agency.
Of the 41 problems identified in the damning review, “of utmost concern” was evidence that a former department supervisor shredded reports before they could go to the Child Protective Services unit for assessment.
The former supervisor is not named in the report. Susan Reese, head of the social services’ Piedmont Regional Office, which conducted the review, declined to comment on the reasons for the supervisor’s departure.
But Reese confirmed that the director of the Rockbridge agency, Meredith Downey, announced her retirement during the inquiry.
Other problems cited in the report include slow responses to emergency calls, missed deadlines, altered documents and low staff morale — which many employees attributed to “an atmosphere of bullying, harassment and intimidation” by the unnamed former supervisor.
The report cites one case in which a child later died.
Earlier this year, an infant was assessed by the agency as “high risk” in an unfit home. “But no services were offered,” the report stated. In April, the 3-month-old girl was rushed to Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Police are investigating both the death and the actions taken by the department in that and other cases.
“We’re looking at it from all angles,” said Capt. Tony McFaddin of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.
For years, members of the sheriff’s office have been troubled by the social services department, which serves Rockbridge County and the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista. “We felt that in some cases they weren’t providing the services that we felt they should have been providing,” McFaddin said.
It was the fatality that finally spurred action.
After the sheriff’s office began to investigate the infant’s death, it ran into a stone wall with the former supervisor, who refused to assign a Child Protective Services worker to the case, according to the report.
The sheriff’s office complained to the Piedmont Regional Office, which urged the local department to get involved. But later, the former supervisor would not share the results of the agency’s investigation with law enforcement, according to the report.
That prompted two more calls by sheriff’s investigators to the regional office. Those calls — combined with complaints from within the department and other state agencies — prompted the regional office to expedite a review of the entire social services department in Rockbridge.
“It’s very concerning,” Reese said of the three-month review, which was completed in May.
The regional office, located in Roanoke, has sent a specialist to the Rockbridge department to help work through the problems.
“Some of the findings were very severe, and that’s why we’re looking at this very closely,” Reese said.
According to the report, the former supervisor would sometimes direct her staff not to respond to emergency calls, saying that it was “too late in the day” and that law enforcement could handle the reports of children in troubled situations.
“Services workers indicated that they used personal cellphones to keep in touch with community partners (i.e. law enforcement) because the Supervisor discourages communication and working relationships,” the report stated.
“Workers stated that sometimes they are so concerned about some cases, they offer services in secret.”
In addition to surveying the 30-some employees at the Rockbridge office, the regional office also examined its caseload numbers, which raised another red flag.
During a year-long period that ended March 1, the agency received 271 reports of alleged abuse or neglect of children. A little more than half — 158— were “screened out,” or determined not to be worthy of investigation.
“That was an extremely high number of screen-outs,” Reese said.
Of those 158 cases, investigators took a more detailed look at a sample of 30 case files. In 12 of those cases, they found that the allegations — such as sexual abuse or physical assault — were of the type that state law requires a closer look at by social services.
While all of the 271 reports examined by investigators were entered into the department’s records, it remains unclear how many other case summaries might have been shredded, Reese said.
No evidence remains of those cases, which were never logged into the department’s computer system. But investigators determined that the shredding happened based on reports from other employees, who had kept copies of the documents before giving them to the former supervisor, according to the report.
Why the documents were shredded remains a mystery.
“I could not speculate on that, because we have heard no reason for this being done,” Reese said.
It does not appear that Child Protective Services staff was overburdened. With an average of nine cases a month referred for further investigation, “this should not be a difficult standard to meet,” the report stated.
In nearly all of the cases, the former supervisor served as the gateway for a case to get to an investigator. The high number of cases that didn’t make the cut appears to be just one reason for low morale among rank-and-file workers in the agency.
“It is concerning that a majority of the employees … reported during interviews and/or written survey comments that the … Supervisor fosters and atmosphere of ‘bullying,’ ‘harassment’ and ‘intimidation,’ the report stated.
Some workers said they were so afraid of encountering their boss in the department’s kitchen area that they constructed a makeshift kitchen for themselves in a storage room.
Complaints to the agency’s director fell on deaf ears, the report stated, which only worsened morale. Efforts to reach the now-retired director, Downey, were unsuccessful on Wednesday.
It was in that kind of environment that a 3-month-old infant received no follow-up care from the social services department, even after it deemed her to be living in a “high risk” home. Although documents in that case were not shredded, it remains unclear why the case did not receive more attention from social services until after the girl died.
Police were notified after the infant was taken to the emergency room.
After pronouncing the girl dead, doctors found discoloration around her face and mouth that indicated she might have been lying face-down for a prolonged period of time, according to a search warrant filed in Rockbridge County Circuit Court.
A man and woman who were caring for the child gave conflicting accounts of how long the infant had been sleeping and when she was found unresponsive, the warrant stated.
In seeking permission to search the home, an investigator wrote in the warrant that the house was extremely dirty “and also appears to have been a danger to the child’s health.”
No charges have been filed in the case. McFaddin, of the sheriff’s office, said investigators are waiting for the results of an autopsy.
And while the sheriff’s office is also looking into the operations of the social services department, McFaddin said there’s been a noticeable improvement since the shakeup at the top.
“Now, since the regional office has gotten involved, our relationship with social services is on the mend, and we still have a good relationship with them,” he said.
Reese also believes that the department is turning a corner.
“The staff that are there are really dedicated, and they want to do the right thing,” she said. “They want to offer their best to the community, and they’re very dedicated to doing that.”