By Bryn McCarthy
The Virginia Department of Social Services board launched an investigation last month into the beleaguered Rockbridge Board of Social Services, but the local Commonwealth’s Attorney says the state board has no power to make real changes on the local level.
“[State Officials] can investigate, they can make recommendations, they can criticize, and do what they want to do, but they can’t fire [local Social Services board members],” Chris Billias, the local Commonwealth’s Attorney, said. “They can’t terminate them, and they can’t remove them.”
“What we found in my special grand jury that investigated the DSS had nothing to do with criminality on the part of the board,” Billias said. “The board we thought was neglectful in terms of their supervision of the agency but it was in no way a criminal thing.”
Last month, local activists who had been critical of the local three-member board succeeded in getting the state board to agree to investigate. The state board said that such an investigation was unprecedented, but cited a state law giving it the authority to remove local board members “for cause.”
Billias, in 2016, led a special grand jury investigation into the local Department of Social Service’s responsibility for numerous documented reports of child abuse, two incidents of children dying, and repeated acts of negligence. A grand jury report of more than 1,000 pages, released in May, made numerous recommendations but did not hand down criminal charges.
The grand jury report was followed by the resignation of Meredith Downey, the former director, and removal of Brenda Perry, the former supervisor.
Suzanne Adcock is now the local director of social services, and local watchdog activists are pleased with the work she has done thus far.
Susan Lawrence, a candidate for the Kerrs Creek seat of the Rockbridge Board of Supervisors and adoptive mother of a young man she says had been abused while in foster care, has been an activist critic of the department for years.
Lawrence feels that Adcock has “been fabulous in what she’s done so far,” but she said she isn’t satisfied with the efforts of the three current board members, none of whom were removed.
“What we’ve also run into is going to meetings where the board members are lying and not accepting responsibility for what happened,” Lawrence said. “They show no shame.”
Adcock, who has helped implement several changes, works directly under the board.
“I don’t have an opinion on [the board members],” Adcock said. “In working with the board, I have had no issues myself since Dec. 1, so I don’t really have an opinion.”
Adcock has not yet received word on exactly how the state investigation will be conducted or its timeline.
“Having not done an investigation like this that anyone on the board now can remember, they weren’t sure how they were going to proceed,” Adcock said. She has not yet heard what will happen with the state investigation procedurally.
Billias says that even if this investigation finds evidence of board members lying at meetings or shredding documents, as it has been found to do in the past, all the state will likely do is make recommendations to the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors and the two city councils, the three bodies that appoint the board.
This investigation is more of a “follow-up” to the report that the Special Grand Jury already did, Billias said.
“It’s already been done,” he said. By conducting this investigation now, after the Office of Inspector General Criminal Investigator has already looked into matters at the local agency and sent his opinion to the higher ups at DSS, Billias said this new investigation into the local board is nothing new.
Russell S. Ford, member of the Rockbridge Board of Supervisors, agrees with Billias saying, “there’s really not much [the state] can do.”
Duaine Fitzgerald, a member of the state Department of Social Services Board, said that he could not comment at this time.