(News & Record (Greensboro, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 12--GREENSBORO -- The staff of the Guilford County Department of Social Services was instructed not to enter information into a computer system in order to hide a case backlog from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to public records obtained this week by the News and Record.
In March, a backlog of 8,100 unprocessed food stamp case recertifications came to light. At the time, Guilford County DSS Director Robert Williams said the department was unaware of the backlog because of a problem with the processing software.
But interviews conducted during an internal investigation show that at least some department members were aware of the backlog and had been told to hide it. According to the investigation report, some of the information comes from witness statements and can't be corroborated.
"The (information redacted) told staff not to pend in NC FAST because the U.S. Department of Agriculture would see how many overdue cases we had," the report reads.
The News & Record requested the 17-page report June 6. A panel of four county staff members conducted the interviews and the results were presented to the DSS board before county commissioners disbanded it in May. County Attorney Mark Payne said the report was sent to the UNC School of Government to redact before being given to the News & Record because of the personnel information it contained. Much of the report is redacted because of that, he said.
In May 2012, the state began implementing a new computer system called NC FAST that was intended to speed up the processing of benefits. But technical problems have created backlogs of food stamp applications statewide.
Had Guilford County not met the March 31 deadline to clear the recertifications, it could have cost the state $88 million in federal money. The state sent 22 workers to help the county clear the backlog.
The backlog cost at least $3,000 in overtime to clear. The News & Record has an outstanding records request with the county from several weeks ago for the total cost of overtime.
Williams -- who resigned shortly after the backlog came to light -- told the media at the time that the backlog arose largely from staff putting cases into one computer system but not into NC FAST as well. The state told counties to enter pending cases into NC FAST so it could track the cases.
The state introduced the NC FAST software to Guilford County in May 2012 as a pilot county for later statewide implementation. At the time, the software had limited functionality, and the county has been behind on processing food stamps cases since, according to the report.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to combine the departments of social services and public health in May, partially in response to the March debacle. The Board of Commissioners took over as board of the combined department.
County Commissioner Hank Henning said he had been hearing about internal problems in DSS well before the backlog came to light -- but the commissioners didn't have any power to do anything about it.
The report "justifies our position that there was indeed no accountability in the department, and we made the right call to move forward with the consolidation," Henning said. "We do, in this case, have the luxury of starting over."
Once a director for the new merged department has been hired, that person will hire a social services director to fill Williams's vacant position.
The report also said that training for new caseworkers was reduced from at least six weeks to one week and that many workers were not capable of working food stamp cases after the training.
Workers complained of a culture within the department of no accountability or planning, according to the report. Worker morale was affected by a lack of trust and communication, the report said.
Four of the five commissioners contacted Friday said they were unaware the report existed. Commissioner Ray Trapp was familiar with it as a member of the former DSS board.
Trapp said he fears the scandal could scare potential applicants away from the social services director job.
"I don't know who would want that job. You're going to have to find someone who is just dedicated to turning around that department," he said. "Internally, I think we have some folks who could step into that role and do it, but are they going to want to take it on?"
Contact Kelly Poe at (336) 373-7003, and follow @poe_NR on Twitter.
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