Wilson: I found a lot of problems
In her first on-the-record interview since her terminated, former Mecklenburg DSS Director Mary Wilson talks about her four-year tenure at the beleaguered agency. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins for Qcitymetro.com)
Throughout the controversy surrounding her termination, former Mecklenburg County DSS Director Mary Wilson has remained publicly silent. But in her first interview, Wilson spoke with Qcitymetro.com and The Charlotte Observer about her four-year tenure at the beleaguered agency.
Some answers were edited for brevity.
Q. First, why have you agreed to talk on the record about this?
I believe that I was asked to come to DSS to fix problems. That’s what the county manager asked me to do, and I found a lot of problems, and I worked hard to fix them. One of the last areas that was really challenging was child welfare. I believe that child welfare is shrouded in secrecy, and I don’t believe that is good for our children, for our families. I don’t know how all of this is going to turn out, but I believe it’s important that we start shining a light on a system that has the potential to be really good and really helpful.
Q. How well do you believe you did at fixing the problems you found?
I actually think that I made a significant difference, not only in the culture of DSS, but in the business processes, helping staff to understand their role a little better as supervisors and managers and directors, developing a relationship with the state ... and looking at best practices across programs and really focusing on how are we really spending the county’s money ... I think I made some really good inroads.
Q. How do you respond to allegations that you micromanaged?
I believe in giving my directors a lot of latitude, until they demonstrate that they need more hands on... I can get in the weeds, and I can be at 50,000 feet. If I am in the weeds, it’s because you are not doing what I need you to do to turn this around... In divisions that had a lot of problems, I would spend a lot of time. So yes, if that’s characterized as being a micromanager, then I guess that’s what it is.
Q. There were also allegations that you got involved in individual cases.
Yes, and that’s true. I got involved in individual cases at the request of juvenile judges, at the request of parents who were complaining and felt they did not have a fair shot, at the request of foster parents who felt they were not being given the right level of support or respect by staff. So, yes, I got involved in individual cases, and I’m actually quite surprised that that would be viewed as a negative. I got involved in food stamp cases. I got involved in Medicaid cases. I got involved in transportation cases. I’m a hands-on manager. I’m a hands-on leader, and I need to know that my staff is doing the right thing for the right reason.
Q. There were also allegations that you got involved in cases of parents accused of abuse and neglect, and that you intervened on behalf of those people when you were acquainted with them.
That is patently untrue. One of the things that I am dismayed at ... is the ability of people to tell what I consider a bold-faced lie. I will say that there may be situations that may appear to them in a certain way and they never checked that appearance ... I realized the position I was in, and I bent over backwards to be objective and fair. It would do me no good to play favorites to people in the community and then have something devastating happen to a child. I would never compromise the importance of what we do for that reason.
Q. There were even allegations that some of your personnel decisions were made based on cronyism and race.
I think that started with the very early hiring of Samara Foxx (wife of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx), and I regret very much that I put Samara in that situation. I would never have created that kind of light over a young woman with such tremendous skills and education... But in terms of cronyism, I hired people who I thought could do the job... I think the visibility of some of those hires became just a distraction from what we were trying to do in terms of infusing the department with new talent, new skills.
Q. So what went wrong that led to your firing?
In a nutshell, I would say that there’s more than one reason I was terminated. I think one of the largest reasons is that I found a lot of stuff that was wrong, and I kept finding stuff that was wrong, and I kept pushing to fix those things, and I think that made the county management team very uncomfortable.
Q. You appealed your firing and the termination was upheld. Is that the end of it for you?
I have not made any final decisions. I do want to say that I feel the appeals panel was put into a very difficult position. They literally had to tell their bosses that they made a mistake, and I understand how difficult that was and how challenging. I think the process is very, very broken.
The day of the appeal, I had sixteen witnesses listed and I was told I had one hour. After the county presented their case, the facilitator, who is also one of the county attorneys, said, “Oh, we’re going to give the county another hour and a half.” ..So it was a very inappropriate process that did not lend itself to fairness and objectivity. So I’m considering all those options about how to go forward. I have some time to think about it. I’m going to talk with some folks who I trust and have some experience and then just wait and see. I am more concerned about giving the Board of County Commissioners...an opportunity to think about their governance, oversight. What do we want in this community? Do we want secrecy? Do we want behind-closed-doors kind of activity? Do we want transparency? Do we want to be able to trust government? Do we want to know that vulnerable people in our community are being treated fairly and have a voice? I think those things are important.
Q. Have you hired an attorney?
I have not.
Q. As DSS director, how often did you meet with (County Manager) Harry Jones or the Board of County Commissioners?
In the four years I was there, I probably met with Harry maybe three times. I requested on numerous occasions the opportunity to present to the Board of County Commissioners and I was not granted that opportunity. I requested on several occasions the opportunity to present to the executive team and I was not given that opportunity. I met with (Mecklenburg County General Manager) Michelle Lancaster, for a time, probably on a weekly basis or every two weeks. Interestingly enough, I have not met with her at all since May 1st.
Editor’s Note: Later in the interview, Wilson recalled two meetings she said she had with Jones. The first, she said, occurred shortly after she uncovered financial impropriety involving the agency’s Giving Tree program, which bought Christmas gifts for needy children and families. Former DSS employee Cindy Brady later pleaded guilty to stealing money from the program and was sent to prison.
Wilson: I was called into a meeting. This was one of the few meetings I had with Harry... After the Giving Tree, I was told, “You’ve put us under a microscope.” I took that to mean that that was not a good thing, so I needed to not raise any more issues and not be, perhaps, as vigilant or diligent. That’s what I received from that message. And so the next meeting may have been about a year later. During that meeting we were talking about something related to YFS (Youth and Family Services) and I was told, “You probably don’t want to get too close to YFS.” And the example was, “Jake was not that close; we kind of let them do their thing...” (Editor’s Note: “Jake” refers to Wilson’s predecessor, Richard “Jake” Jacobsen.)
Q. Who, specifically, gave you that advice?
Q. Why would you be denied an opportunity to meet with commissioners?
I think there is almost a desire not to tell the Board of County Commissioners too much. They don’t ask; we don’t volunteer.
I personally think it’s a problem. I don’t think we have enough governance, enough oversight, and I don’t think we have enough community involvement.
Q. How safe are the children under Youth and Family Services?
Safety is only one component. You can take a child out and put them some place else and they are safe. But academically, they may perform worse than the at-risk kids in the school system. They may be suffering from trauma and we don’t know it and don’t address it. They may be grieving the loss of their family... So there is more to YFS than taking kids out of abuse and neglect and keeping them safe. Child welfare is not about taking kids out of the home and warehousing them. It’s about keeping kids in a safe environment while you can minimize what’s going on in the family... So the short answer is: Yes, I feel children are safe within the FYS system. But the longer answer is: This system has more than safety. It has reunification as a goal. It has permanency as a goal. It has treating trauma as a goal. It has addressing educational outcomes as a goal. We can’t just say keeping kids safe is the only goal.
Q. What advice would you offer to the next DSS director?
Be real clear on what the county manager wants you to do and what the timeline is and how they will respond to the problems that are going to bubble up and the problems that are going to be uncovered, because they’re there.
Q. What advice would you offer to county commissioners?
Roll up your sleeves and get engaged. Don’t let this system continue to be shrouded in secrecy. Look around the state.
There’s a reason why there are 99 other advisory committees for social services, public health and mental health. We’ve got a commission for Park & Rec. Isn’t social services equally important? We’ve got a school board for the schools system – 180,000 kids are impacted. Social services touches one is six residents of Mecklenburg County. That’s over 50,000 residents. Isn’t that equally important?
Q. Looking back on your tenure with DSS, what would you do differently?
I came in very process-focused...and went into process mode.
I think that just did not allow staff to understand why we were doing what we did or how much I appreciated them and respected their ability and cared about them. And so I would have done that differently. I don’t know how I would have done that differently because I felt that I was at the eye of the storm.
Q. How has this affected you personally?
I consider myself so fortunate to have had this experience. I have been committed to this community since 1989. I love Charlotte-Mecklenburg. I’ve had a corporate career, I’ve had a nonprofit career, and now I’ve had an opportunity to work in government. I am so fortunate to have worked with some really outstanding people who are passionate about what they do, and I got to bring some of my skills to the table. They taught me a lot about human services, and I think I taught them about business analytics, how to improve without losing the human touch... I am saddened at the way it ended; I really am.
I wish that we could have had a conversation about “We need to make a change and this is why. We want to give you some time to think about it, and we’re going to move in a different direction.” I’m sure we could have come to that agreement. I’m a business person. But when it happened on the eve of DNC (Democratic National Convention) and I was given less than eight hours to make a decision, I reacted to what I thought was just a suspicious way to end a relationship. So I’m saddened by that, and I wish that could have been handled differently. I’m no worse for the wear.
Q. What’s next for you?
I have no idea. I am going to spend Christmas with my children, I’m going to put out some feelers, I’m going to be in prayer... I would love to have an opportunity to contribute to a company where my skills could be best used and I could really invest in people. That has been exciting for me. That’s been probably the greatest growth for me.... I’m at a place in my life where I want to build the next great team, and I’m looking forward to that.
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