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N.C. bill would toughen rules for parent-child reunification

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RALEIGH (AP) — The court-appointed guardian for a toddler who drowned after he was reunited with his mother said Thursday that a bill to strengthen rules for when children are returned to parents would fix a small but important part of North Carolina’s broken social services system.

The bill known as Rylan’s law would require that social workers observe two successful visits and document those visits for a judge before children and parents are reunited. Such visits are considered best practice in North Carolina but aren’t required.

“Rylan’s law would not fix a broken system, but it would strengthen it,” Pam Reed of Whispering Pines told the committee. “It would close a loophole so that the next child could be spared Rylan’s fate.”

Reed was the guardian ad litem for Rylan Ott, the 23-month-old who wandered a half-mile from his Moore County home in April 2016 and drowned in a pond. He died four months after he had been returned to his mother even though no social worker had observed the two together.

Rylan and his older sister had been removed from their mother in October 2015 and placed in the custody of foster parents who lived in Cumberland County, located one county south of Moore.

Rylan’s mother, Samantha Nacole Bryant of Carthage, is awaiting trial on charges that include felony child abuse and involuntary manslaughter.

In the aftermath of Rylan’s death, the director of the Moore County Department of Social Services, resigned after an internal investigation that found that DSS generally followed laws and policies but there were “significant failures and omissions” at critical decision points. It found that caseload size and staff vacancies contributed to the problems.

For example, state standards call for no more than 10 cases for each DSS child protectives services investigator. Moore County’s investigators were handling about three times that many cases, the investigative report showed.

On Thursday, members of the House Committee on Homelessness, Foster Care, and Dependency generally agreed that the bill is needed. One legislator questioned whether two successful visits are enough, and another asked if the requirement would cost more money.

“This is a Band-Aid,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, one of the bill’s sponsors. “This is a Band-Aid to make sure we’re getting something done.”

Reed said she didn’t think the bill would cost more money since social workers attended most of the family visits she had for the 19 children she represented during four years as a guardian ad litem.

The committee unanimously approved the bill, which was referred to a judiciary committee. Officials at Moore County and the state social services departments declined comment Thursday.

Committee members also briefly discussed a far-ranging bill to overhaul social services across the state, then agreed to continue that discussion later.

That bill, which Stevens said has been in development for four years, comes on the heels of a federal report released last year that concluded North Carolina failed to reach the standards set as successful for all 14 performance factors on which the state’s child welfare program was evaluated. The federal Children’s Bureau reviews each state every seven to ten years.

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