BEAUFORT — After 30 years in the trenches of child protective services, Carteret County Department of Social Services Program Manager Pam Stewart is retiring, effective Thursday, Oct. 1.
She’s a rare breed to make it that long in a profession experiencing a high turnover rate due to the emotional strain of difficult cases, stacks of paperwork and long hours.
With all of the challenges, Ms. Stewart said Wednesday CPS is still a rewarding career and she hopes federal and state officials will work to lighten the load on child welfare workers.
“I tell the new workers coming in that the job still can be fun and when you see a family reunited and make it, that is very rewarding,” she said.
Ms. Stewart, 64, said she’s seen a lot of changes that affect families, children and how CPS workers do their jobs over her career, many of which have added to the stress of the profession.
“When I first started, the main thing was alcohol that contributed to child abuse and neglect,” she said. “But then we started moving into crack cocaine and other types of drugs impacting the supervision of children in homes. We started seeing changes in the types of drugs. Now it’s opioids, heroine and methamphetamines. Those things have impacted our practices and the supervision of children.
“Now we’re dealing with children who have seen parents (overdoes) or have seen Narcan (naloxone) administered to them,” she continued. “Back in the 1990s we weren’t dealing with that.”
Ms. Stewart added that as drug use has increased, so has domestic violence.
“They had just opened the first safe house here when I started. Now, domestic violence is in so many of the cases we handle,” she said. “We’re seeing kids going to drug dealers’ houses with their parents for drug buys. Dealers have weapons in their homes. It’s predominantly cases of drugs and violence that are leading to children coming into our foster care system.”
Another issue that concerns Ms. Stewart is the lack of localized mental health services in the county.
“We used to have the Neuse Mental Health Center in New Bern and when there was someone needing services here, we just referred them there,” she said. “Now you have to navigate this huge mental health system for substance abuse services and treatment. It’s troubling for families and it’s troubling for us to navigate…”
Ms. Stewart said another added stress is the numerous new policies that have led to hours of paperwork.
“The amount of paperwork, policies, forms and deadlines to meet is strangling social workers,” she said. “Time management is an essential skill of a social worker. Our child safety assessment used to be one page. Now it’s eight pages. We used to fill out one health form when a child came into our care. Now we have to fill out three in the first 30 days. Why? With all that, it’s hard for social workers to get into the field, but you can’t leave kids unsafe while you do paperwork.”
As with other human services agencies, the coronavirus pandemic has changed things, as well. Ms. Stewart said employees must wear protective equipment when they are out in the field, and many visits and consultations are being held virtually.
An added challenge has been the closure or courts, which has caused interruptions in child welfare cases being heard and children being kept longer in foster care.
“So kids get stuck,” she said. “We are supposed to work to reunite children with their families within 12 months. That’s making it difficult.”
The pandemic has also created obstacles for parents or family members ordered to get mental health services, according to Ms. Stewart.
Regarding solutions to the high turnover rate, Ms. Stewart said state officials are looking at ways to improve the overwhelming amount of policies that require countless hours of paperwork.
“Unfortunately, most of that is at the federal and state level, and we have no control over that,” she said.
As for pay, Ms. Stewart said the county’s child welfare salary scale is competitive with surrounding counties, which she sees as an improvement. She also thinks a recent decision by DSS to start using trained, temporary contract workers is helping relieve some of the workload.
Ms. Stewart admitted the demands and crazy hours of CPS workers puts a strain on family life.
“It’s hard for social workers to do this job and balance that with family life,” she said. “I had one applicant put it perfectly when they said child welfare is a lifestyle. Your family makes tremendous sacrifices for you to work in this field.”
Ms. Stewart said she was looking forward to enjoying time with her husband of 24 years, David, and watching her son, Fred, 22, graduate this year from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke with his degree in business administration. With that milestone and 30 years under her belt, Ms. Stewart felt this was the right time to retire.
“I’m looking forward to not getting up at 5:30 a.m. I’m going to sleep in and recharge my batteries,” she said. “I’m initially not going to do a thing, but I’m not sure how long I can do that. I’ve been working since I was 14.”
Ms. Stewart also plans to continue her second love, which is singing in the choir St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in New Bern. In fact, when Ms. Stewart started her college career she had hoped to pursue a career as an opera singer. Her father, however, had other ideas and encouraged her to consider another major. She decided on education while still taking music courses.
She admitted she had never intended to go into social work until she started volunteering at a children’s home while attending college at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
“I started volunteering at the Methodist Children’s Home on campus. I worked with abused, neglected and dependent children,” she said. “I really liked it. I didn’t know at that time it would be what I would end up doing for my career.”
When she graduated, she said she was “exploring” her options, and ended up working as a social worker at St. Agatha Home for Children in New York, N.Y. She worked there for five years, then landed a job at the former Neuse Mental Health Center in New Bern to be close to her mother, who had retired to Carteret County.
She began her career with Carteret County DSS in March 1990 as a social worker in CPS and took on additional responsibilities over the years, ending her career as a social work program manager.
County DSS Director Clint Lewis said he would miss Ms. Stewart and her years of dedicated service to the children and families.
“We greatly appreciate the excellent service Pam has provided to our agency and recognize that our community is stronger because of her leadership,” he said. “Pam, you have finished the course well and best wishes in your retirement.”
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.