After hearing alarming testimony Wednesday morning from county coroners and former S.C. Department of Social Service officials regarding child fatalities linked to that agency, a Democratic senator says it’s time for Director Lillian Koller to go.
“It’s like the ship is sinking, people are screaming for help and the captain is hiding in the hold,” said Sen. Joel Lourie of Columbia. “It’s time for new leadership at the agency.”
Wednesday’s hearing was the third since January called by a Senate DSS Oversight subcommittee investigating widespread allegations that Koller’s policies have led to a massive rate of turnover among experienced caseworkers and managers and, in some cases, preventable child deaths.
The main policy in question has been a drive to reduce Child Protective Services’ caseload by referring low-risk cases of child neglect to outside agencies to provide services like courses in parenting. While that idea might look fine on paper, and in theory would provide previously unavailable services to vulnerable families, a significant and growing body of evidence indicates that DSS has been farming out cases of severe abuse in which the agency should have opened investigations and taken children into foster care.
Koller has dubbed this high-priority policy a “Wildly Important Goal,” or WIG, and she has said that, in order to accomplish her WIG, caseworkers were instructed to find “forever homes” for children in foster care. The consequence of the caseload-reduction policy in numerous cases has been children left in or returned to dangerous households where they continue to suffer abuse and sometimes die, according to a growing number of Koller’s critics who are stepping forward.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why that child was left in that home,” said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, in giving testimony March 19 about the violent death of 4-year-old Robert Guinyard, whose family had been reported to DSS 16 times from 2006 to 2013. Watts said seven of those reports, which came from relatives and a health care provider, concerned Robert’s safety specifically.
Watts said three of those reports came in the six months leading up to Robert’s murder when, despite hearing of a bruised toddler and substance abuse in the home, DSS referred the Guinyard family to voluntary case services provided by one of the outside agencies contracted by DSS to provide low-level parenting support, leaving Robert in danger.
Both Robert’s mother and father have been charged with his murder.
Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten then testified about similar tragedies in her part of the state, saying she thought it important to attend Wednesday’s hearing so that senators would understand that problems with DSS are not limited to Richland County.
Asked by Sen. Tom Young (R-Aiken) whether the DSS failings that she and Watts uncovered in the course of their death investigations had increased or grown worse in recent years, Wooten — in saying, “It seems in the last two years or so that I’ve had a lot of these glaring cases” — appeared to pin the agency’s failings on Koller’s leadership.
“One of my greatest concerns is I’ll see these children that died and maybe it’s not an open DSS case now, but there’s been previous involvement with DSS [so that] I question why a child was ever returned to that situation,” Wooten said.
Two former DSS managers who left the agency after Koller’s arrival, former deputy director Linda Martin and former Richland County DSS director Allen Carter, offered similar explanations for why children are being left in danger.
“Currently decisions are not being made based on what would most improve the lives of the adults and children served by the agency. The decisions are being made based on what would make top management look best. There is an inexorable drive to have the best numbers, the lowest caseloads,” Martin said, adding that while those goals were good ones, the agency’s means of achieving them have prioritized sunny statistics over child safety.
Asked what drives decision making at DSS, Carter echoed Martin, saying, “The WIGs were the sole purpose. There was nothing else there.”
Koller has yet to attend one of the subcommittee hearings, citing doctor’s orders related to a stroke she had in December. Nonetheless, she recently has been spotted around the State House and her staff says she’s been going in to work.
After warning that he might blow a gasket, Lourie remarked that he felt like the subcommittee had been “playing hide and seek with the director.” Shortly thereafter, the subcommittee chair Sen. Young said, “Just because she’s not here today doesn’t mean she’s getting a pass.”
The senators said they’d been notified by DSS that Koller might have her doctor’s permission to attend a hearing in late April.
Earlier on, Young had opened the hearing by emphasizing the subcommittee’s commitment to its mission, saying, “This committee seeks the truth whatever it may be.”
Free Times reported earlier Wednesday allegations by well placed legislative sources that two of Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff members had met with Young and the subcommittee’s third member Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) to urge them not to embarrass the governor or damage her re-election chances in November during the course of their investigation.