In Harm’s Way

Critics Say DSS Fails to Protect State’s Most Vulnerable Children
By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Critics say one of DSS Director Lillian Koller’s goals is to reduce the number of kids in foster care. Koller says no such policy exists. Photo by Sean Rayford

Fifteen-month-old Jayon Wilson Turnipseed was taking a bath with two other children on May 18 when his father’s girlfriend allegedly slammed his face into the tub’s spigot, killing him.

An unnamed, autistic 4-year-old was taking a beating from his father, allegedly, on July 1 when his mother returned home. She didn’t intervene, according to WLTX; instead, she took a shower. She later told Richland County deputies that she could hear the finishing thud from the bathroom.

Seven-week-old Tyler Jamar Miller was unresponsive when he arrived at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital on Aug. 2, where his 22-year-old father had taken him after allegedly inflicting lethal “blunt force trauma” to the infant’s upper body.

In addition to occurring in Richland County over the past summer, these three alleged homicides by child abuse all share another troubling denominator: Each family had been reported to Child Protective Services at the S.C. Department of Social Services prior to the killings, yet somehow the victims had been left in danger, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.

Because such situations have been neither few nor isolated, South Carolina’s child advocates are speaking out. One well-known problem in the state is the extremely high level of caseloads at DSS: The State reported in March that DSS workers manage an average of 1,001 cases each, the highest caseload in the country. [Editor’s note: The State later ran a clarification saying that number refers specifically to child support cases, not child welfare caseloads.] Nationally, the average is 280 cases per employee. But advocates say that’s not the only problem. Many of them say that new policies at DSS are at least partially to blame for the plight of the state’s most vulnerable children, too.

Lawmakers have begun to take notice. A meeting of the S.C. Joint Citizens & Legislative Committee on Children held last week aired many of the complaints against the agency, including the charge that DSS is putting children in harm’s way in an effort to lower the number of cases on its books. A Legislative Audit Council investigation is already under way, with a report expected early next year, and legislators are planning their own hearings, too.

But while questions are being asked, answers have not been easily forthcoming, particularly from DSS. For now, South Carolinians can only wonder whether the high rate of seemingly preventable child fatalities is the result of pressures applied by an exceptionally clinical, goal-driven agency head or simply the continuance of a shameful Palmetto State tradition — failing to fulfill our responsibilities to our children.

Raising Questions

The primary policy critics are questioning is one known to DSS staff as a “Wildly Important Goal” —or a WIG, DSS Director Lillian Koller’s term for the highest of priorities. According to legislators and others with intimate knowledge of DSS’ workings, one such WIG is to significantly reduce the number of children in foster care, which sometimes means returning children to dangerous homes.

“Her (Koller’s) goal is to reduce the number of kids in foster care by half, and part of achieving that goal is reunification with family,” said one DSS service provider who operates a group home for abused children in DSS custody. “I can probably count on one hand the number of kids who I felt good about sending home, and we have about 100 kids a year,” said the service provider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution from DSS leadership.

Paige Greene, director of Richland County CASA, addresses the S.C. Joint Citizens & Legislative Committee on Children. Photo by Sean Rayford

Last Thursday, Paige Greene, director for Richland County CASA (the acronym stands for “court-appointed special advocates”), packed a conference room in the Gressette building on the State House grounds with 29 guardian ad litems, men and women who volunteer to represent the interests of minors in the legal system.

“I have been in this business for over 30 years, and honestly I have never in my life been so frightened or scared for the safety of our children as I am today,” Greene told the S.C. Joint Citizens & Legislative Committee on Children.

She went on to testify that she and CASA’s guardian ad litems hear “week after week after week” from DSS workers who are frightened that they will lose their jobs if they don’t reduce the numbers in their caseloads.

“We all know that if I have to get my numbers down, I can only do that one of two ways: Quit taking children into foster care, or get the children that are in out,” Greene said.

How does a caseworker choose, Greene asked, which child to return home when doing so can mean returning him to his abuser or a parent too debilitated by drugs or mental illness to care for him?

For its part, DSS issued a statement attributed to Koller ahead of the committee hearing. “There is no policy or push to reduce the number of children in foster care,” it read.

But state lawmakers remain unsatisfied. Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) told Free Times Monday that she and Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) are teaming up for a bipartisan investigation into the claims against Koller and DSS.

This investigation will be independent of a legislative audit of DSS’ Child Protective Services, which Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Dorchester) called for last year. A representative of the Legislative Audit Council has said that its findings should be issued in early 2014.

After receiving complaints from constituents, “it just appeared to me that there was a systemic problem of not following the law, not protecting children, closing cases that shouldn’t be closed,” Horne said on Sept. 26, by way of explaining her audit request.

She cited instances of at-risk children being inappropriately denied Child Protective Services, as well as DSS failing to notify concerned parties about court dates or transitions in child custody or changes in visitation rights for children in its custody.

“Unfortunately, I suspect that [the Legislative Audit Council] will find many systemic failures that will explain the spike in child fatalities that we are currently experiencing in this state,” Horne said.

Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) is teaming up with Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) for a bipartisan investigation into the claims against Koller and DSS. Photo by Sean Rayford

Perils Inside The System

As too many children could attest, getting into DSS custody is not necessarily the same thing as getting to safety.

Dangerous adults occasionally infiltrate the Child Protective Services system. And youth sex offenders, many of whom were victimized themselves, are not always weeded out of DSS’ group homes — even when caseworkers are aware of the threats they may pose to other children around them, according to several service provider accounts.

One worker at a shelter for abused and neglected children told Free Times that she recently had prevented a potential adoption in which a DSS worker tried to place a sex-offending 13-year-old with a family that had other small children.

“The DSS worker was not going to divulge that to the foster parents,” the shelter worker said. The withholding of such information would violate the South Carolina Children’s Code of Laws (63-9-520), which requires that “a medical and developmental history of the adoptee” be conducted before an adoption can be finalized. Not only that, but upon being informed of the child’s past sex offenses, the DSS worker sided with the child.

“When [the perpetrators are] white, attractive children, it’s like, ‘There’s no way he could be like that. It had to be the other way around,’” the shelter worker said. The shelter worker is white and identified the DSS worker as being white, too.

Another shelter worker from a separate region of the state shared a similar story, except this time the child was transitioning from a family setting in which there had been problems to a group shelter.

“What we were told was that she’d been bullying her younger siblings,” the shelter worker said.

The next day, however, an investigator from DSS’ Out-of-Home Abuse and Neglect division showed up to interview the child. OHAN investigations are confidential by law, but on the way out the door the investigator mentioned to a member of the shelter staff: “You probably want to make sure you keep her away from your younger girls.”

“Sure enough, we started seeing problems,” the shelter worker said, “and it becomes, ‘Which kid do I protect?’ We had to have her removed because I wasn’t confident in us being able to protect the kids we [already] had.”

“And that was an active investigation within DSS, and I know that every caseworker involved with a child gets notified of those OHAN investigations within 24 hours.”

Both workers at the two separate shelters voiced dismay at what they perceived to be increasingly shoddy work by DSS caseworkers. They blamed overwhelming caseloads and poor motivation, but also severe deficits in education and training, especially for newer hires. They also criticized a lack of preparation for children transitioning into new living situations, such as being reunified with their parents or moving to a foster family or group home. They said it was unfair to all parties to be thrown together abruptly.

According to the worker from the first shelter, sudden transitions can sometimes be so jarring for a child that he or she reverts to old behaviors that had been successfully treated but not fully cured.

“We’ve had one kid sent back [repeatedly] because he wets the bed,” but the reason for that bedwetting has never been revealed to the foster parents, the shelter worker said.

“You’ve got this cute little kid waking up in the middle of the night and peeing on the side of his bed or peeing in his closet,” the shelter worker said. “It’s because he has a history of sexual abuse, and [the bathroom] was where he was abused, but no one ever told the foster family that, so they just think they’ve got this nasty little kid and they’re just going to send him back.”

From left: Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland), Sen. Mike Fair (R-Greenville) and Harry W. Davis Jr., director of the Children’s Law Center at the University of South Carolina School of Law, hear testimony at a meeting of the S.C. Joint Citizens & Legislative Committee on Children. Photo by Sean Rayford

The Numbers Game

While Koller insists that there is no undue pressure at her agency to reduce cases in Child Protective Services by returning children to their homes or finding new adoptive homes, testimony and evidence challenge that assertion.

For instance, last Thursday night at the Joint Committee meeting, Lt. Heide Scott of Richland County Sheriff Department’s Victims Services Unit, testified that, “Our main concern is a lot of times we’re seeing the children returned home [by DSS] before we even finish our investigations.”

Also, according to a whistleblower’s memo co-authored by three people with close working knowledge of DSS’ Child Protective Services, “Front line workers are bullied and threatened into ‘meeting the numerical goals’ which translates to leaving children in unsafe living environments, returning children from in-state-custody to homes they were removed from without any meaningful change to the reasons [for] bringing them into custody.”

Also, in the “director’s message” section on DSS’s own website, Koller herself touts her agency’s reduced caseload numbers by the bullet point.

Then, if you click on the words “Wildly Important Goals,” the next page reads: “Last year in Human Services at DSS, we set an ambitious WIG to increase by 50% the number of children in long-term foster care (on average waiting 3.5 years) to get permanent families.”

In other words, DSS set out to drastically cut the number of kids in long-term foster care. If the kids were landing in happy, healthy homes, then that would indeed be a goal to tout. But the testimony from service providers suggests that they’re not — that instead, they’re simply being sent back to troubled homes. And the stated goal of increasing the number of kids who leave foster care by 50 percent is in direct contradiction to the agency’s statement that there is no push to reduce the number of children in foster care.

While DSS deems some numbers worthy of celebration, others obviously are less popular.

For example, how many children who have been associated with Child Protective Services have died so far in 2013?

In the Oct. 2 edition, Free Times cited the whistleblowers’ memo referenced above, which states that a DSS deputy director announced at an Aug. 15 statewide meeting that there had been 31 child fatalities thus far in 2013.

According to Linda Martin, a different DSS deputy director who was recently terminated in a reorganization effort, that 31 figure, which comes from inside DSS, represents the number of children that have died who have been “associated” with DSS — meaning they were not necessarily in DSS custody, as DSS may have returned them to their homes or determined them to be ineligible for its services for whatever reason.

Martin and other sources told Free Times that 31 such deaths is an increase from past years.

Asked to comment, DSS said it was unaware of a statistic for child fatalities associated with DSS and suggested asking SLED. Additionally, DSS has declined numerous requests for comment in recent weeks.

Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) says federal law demands that DSS keep track of child fatalities and that it have an internal body for reviewing deaths associated with the agency. Photo by Sean Rayford

But according to state Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg), who sits on the Joint Committee, federal law demands that DSS keep track of such a statistic and that it have an internal body for reviewing child fatalities associated with the agency.

Then different statistics came out at the Oct. 3 Joint Committee meeting. Laura Hudson of the State Child Fatality Advisory Committee presented numbers compiled from research she had conducted at SLED in response to a Freedom of Information request, which she said had been filed by Sen. Hutto.

According to Hudson, from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31 of this year, there were 41 child fatalities in cases with DSS involvement. While 41 would represent a greater number of tragedies, it could potentially show a slight drop in such deaths since 2009, as Hudson also compiled statistics from that year on.

The sources for each child fatality statistic questioned the legitimacy of the other, but Koller latched onto the declining trend indicated by Hudson’s numbers in last Thursday’s meeting.

“I can’t say that Ms. Koller’s new policies have brought them down, but they certainly haven’t increased them,” Hudson later said.

For now, the true number of child fatalities associated with DSS remains unclear.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee …

While Koller was quick to point out to the Joint Committee that Hudson’s numbers showed a slight year-to-year decline in child fatalities associated with DSS under her administration, she might be wary of the fact that Hudson’s numbers are much higher than the 31 statistic initially reported by Free Times.

Last February, in Tennessee, mounting criticism over child fatalities associated with that state’s Department of Children’s Services drove its commissioner Kate O’Day to resign.

According to The Associated Press, 151 deaths associated with O’Day’s former agency, which is charged with protecting children from neglect and abuse, occurred between January 2009 and July 2012.

According to Hudson’s numbers, about 170 child fatalities associated with DSS have already occurred on Koller’s watch, which began in February 2011.

But the outcry in South Carolina so far has been muted. If things are as bad as the reports and numbers suggest, where is the outrage?

As it stands now, the state’s most vulnerable children face a broken-down system of social services. Department of Social Service workers are underpaid and overburdened with cases, and the agency they work for is pushing them to lower the number of children in Child Protective Services — in any way they can, critics fear, regardless of whether it puts children in harm’s way.

Whether relief is on the way remains to be seen. State legislators are looking into the problem, and will likely propose solutions once the investigations are done. But whether the state will step up to meet the challenge is not clear — and its record thus far is not encouraging.

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