(The Center Square) – A top local child welfare agency will have to testify in front of a legislative panel about its decision to place a 9-year old in a drug- and needle-filled hotel room.
The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services voted Tuesday to subpoena Buncombe County Health and Human Services Director Talmadge "Stoney" Blevins after he refused to disclose details of the case to a state senator.
Blevins said the details are protected under state privacy laws. Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Buncombe, asked the committee Tuesday to summons Blevins for a possible closed-door meeting Oct. 13, where he must provide documents related to the case.
"In order for me to understand what may have gone wrong, if anything, I have to ask, very detailed, specific questions to know if the law needs to be changed; if a rule needs to be changed. Is it a policy? Is it human error? If it's a human error, what caused that human error?" Edwards said.
According to Edwards, police officers in his district arrested the 9-year-old girl's father in March during a traffic stop, where illicit drugs and needles were found in the car. Buncombe County Social Work Services instructed authorities to leave the child with her father's friend in a hotel room. Black Mountain police officers, however, did not think that was in the best interest of the child.
"They discovered that that 9-year-old child did not know the male adult in the room," Edwards said. "They also discovered that there were about 150 needles and drugs and drug paraphernalia in that room."
Officers took the child to the police station and later placed her with relatives from another state. Edwards said officers told him there had seen similar occurrences in the past, but the agency blocked Edwards' inquiries into the case.
According to North Carolina law, the agency cannot directly or indirectly disclose information about people who are receiving social services unless it is part of the administrative process of providing the services.
The legislators voted, 15-8, to subpoena Blevins to the meeting. Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, co-chairperson of the committee, said it was the first time the panel has approved a subpoena, as far as he knew. Some lawmakers said Blevins sent them a letter volunteering to come with a formal request.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said the state probe into the Buncombe County incident should have started with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The state agency and the local government should be the ones examining the issue, she said.
"I trust these people, DSS directors across the state, and as a former county commissioner, we didn't subpoena anyone in," Carney said. "We got to the bottom, and we've got issues stopped."
In addition to the state's social services' privacy law, Carney was concerned about Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPPA) Act violations. The federal law protects personal health and medical information, but Carney did agree the incident calls for policy changes.
"I get real concern that when we make a move like this, that we are going to open a door here, and we're going to start calling up as every member hears an issue like this," she said. "It's a horrific issue, and it needs to be addressed with public policy changes."
Edwards has proposed legislation that would give the General Assembly access to confidential social service files. The bill did not make it to a House vote, but Carney said legislative working groups are discussing similar measures.