Union County Department of Social Services hired Patrick Betancourt as a new Program Administrator over Child Welfare Services, continuing a drastic movement toward change since coming under scrutiny last November following child abuse allegations against one of the county’s top child welfare supervisors.
Betancourt has worked with county officials during his most recent tenure with the North Carolina DSS overseeing the implementation of child welfare reform across the state. He comes highly recommended by those within the county who have dealt closely with him over the last year, and many state officials seemed incredulous that he applied for the job at all.
“When he applied, we were just ecstatic,” said Richard Matens, executive director of Human Services. “His credentials really showed through in his interview. Throughout the entire process we were sure that we had the right man for the job.”
Betancourt began his work in Union County on Aug. 11 and will continue to build on 22 years of service in the child welfare field. He has served in many positions, from being a policy administrator and program coordinator to working as a social worker and camp counselor.
It’s the focus on family that got Betancourt involved in child welfare services 22 years ago and the reason he stays passionate about it to this day, he said.
“Families really do make change,” Betancourt said. “It’s not always easy to see, but when you do see parents increasing their ability to protect, enhancing their ability to make decisions for their family, that’s when you know you can make change for the better.”
It’s this emphasis on positive change that makes Betancourt an exciting hire for many in the department. The department has been struggling with its reputation in the community since last November, when the case of Wanda Sue Larson highlighted the need for a drastic change in the Union County DSS.
Larson was a DSS supervisor arrested in November after an 11-year-old boy was found handcuffed to her porch with a dead chicken around his neck. Betancourt would like to continue with actions already put in motion by the department to fix the way the community views them.
“The biggest change I’d like to see right now is ensuring that we have the public’s confidence,” Betancourt said. “This is done by keeping the family at the center of what we’re doing. I’d like to enhance the work that’s already been done.”
Since the Larson incident, the county has completely overhauled its Child Welfare Program, firing multiple social workers and demoting others that could not stand up to the scrutiny of the spotlight.
It was in this capacity that Betancourt, who helped write the 2012 child welfare initiative Reaching for Excellence and Accountability in Practice (REAP), became familiar with Union County DSS. Union County is now one of 17 counties that has signed on with REAP while Betancourt and other state employees have advised them on reform.
During this work, Betancourt quickly became impressed with the way those in the department were able to turn a horrific act into a learning experience.
“They had used an incident that was exceptionally tragic and sprang forward in the best way possible. That’s exciting to be a part of,” Betancourt said. “To use that as a way to lead change rather than the change dragging it along. That made me aware that this was an agency I wanted to be a part of.”
In a press release announcing Betancourt’s hiring, Union County DSS Director Rae Alepa emphasized the focus on change that Betancourt will help represent and implement.
“Patrick believes in the importance of change and is fully invested in the change process, including greater family engagement, outcomes, focused tasks and more,” Alepa said. “We are very fortunate to have Patrick come aboard with his knowledge and experience within child welfare services.”