Local and State News

As Child Fatalities Rise, So Does Anger at DSS

By Porter Barron Jr.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
“They dropped [their numbers] significantly, and, I’d love to know, where are these kids going?"

Visit the S.C. Department of Social Services website, go to Director Lillian Koller’s page, and you will see the proud statement of a goal-oriented agency head, touting statistics as evidence of objectives met since February 2011, when she accepted Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointment to lead the agency tasked with protecting and assisting the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including its children.

Among the numbers highlighted: From July 2011 to January 2012, DSS finalized more than 450 adoptions and 250 family reunifications of children in long-term foster care, a “record-breaking achievement” for South Carolina; in 2010, the agency eliminated a significant case backlog, some of nearly 25,000 child abuse and neglect reports pending 60 days or more.

But according to numerous sources familiar with the agency’s workings, the most crucial of DSS numbers would be horrifying if only the agency weren’t hiding it.

“You go to these meetings [with DSS], and they put up statistics. You know the statistic they don’t put up? How many kids have died in the past year,” says a service provider who is contracted by DSS to provide shelter and care to neglected or abused children who have been placed in DSS custody. The service provider, like three others who spoke with Free Times for this article, requested anonymity, saying she fears retaliation from DSS, which could eliminate funding for her shelter.

Since Koller took over at the agency, the number of kids in DSS custody has declined significantly, the service provider says — but the potential price of that change is children not getting the help they need.

“They dropped [their numbers] significantly, and, I’d love to know, where are these kids going?” the service provider asks. “So they’re either returning kids [to the homes from which they came] or they’re not taking them.”

According to a statement written by three individuals with intimate knowledge of DSS’s Child Protective Services, a DSS deputy director announced at a statewide meeting on Aug. 15 that there had been 31 child fatalities since January 2013. That’s an increase over previous years, and service providers question whether DSS’s efforts to keep its case numbers down are contributing to the increase.

Linda Martin, a different DSS deputy director who was recently terminated as part of a reorganization effort, says the figure of 31 fatalities refers to children who have been “associated” with DSS — meaning that they were not necessarily in DSS custody, because DSS may have screened them out during the intake process.

“Those kids that are dying, are those the kids they’re not taking?” the service provider asks.

The answer to that question is not known. The agency declined multiple requests for comment made last week and this week on the allegations against its policies. As Free Times went to press, however, DSS provided a partial answer to questions posed about child fatalities. The agency said that between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, one child died while in emergency protective custody and that the child’s injuries came prior to being in DSS custody. The agency denied, however, that it keeps statistics on the total number of deaths of children with whom it comes into contact.

Service providers aren’t the only ones concerned with the welfare of children who come into contact with DSS, however. Last year, state Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Dorchester) and 32 of her fellow House members asked the Legislative Audit Council to look into allegations against DSS. A representative of that investigating body told Free Times that its findings should be made public in early 2014.

Martin, who worked in numerous positions at the agency for 36 years, says that DSS’s child fatality toll rarely exceeds 20 to 25 deaths in a year. She went on to say that the agency has discouraged Child Protective Services caseworkers from opening cases on at-risk children or taking them into DSS custody, because that would put them on the DSS books and hurt its statistics.

Instead, Martin says, workers are encouraged to funnel at-risk children into the Voluntary Case Management program, an invention of Koller’s that relies on a network of private contractors, mostly nonprofits, to ameliorate problems of child neglect in households. The program offers parenting education for willing participants, for example.

“It’s only supposed to be for very, very low-level cases,” Martin says. “You don’t leave a non-state worker with a case that is dangerous, but she (Koller) is doing it.” She added that those who staff the Voluntary Case Management program only receive a day’s worth of training, which she deemed dreadfully insufficient for dealing with children from troubled backgrounds.

DSS says that no children have died while receiving VCM services.

A service provider contracted by DSS for Voluntary Case Management services, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the program, “We were only supposed to see 300 cases in a year, and we just hit 16 months, and 1,200 cases is what we’ve seen.”

The service provider added: “We weren’t supposed to be seeing any sexual abuse in this program, we weren’t supposed to see any domestic violence, and we’re seeing both of them. What [DSS] told us we were going to be seeing just wasn’t true.”

But the Voluntary Case Management program is only one of the agency’s problems, DSS critics say.

Martin and several service providers also point to sloppy case management at DSS, citing in particular mishandled transitions between homes and shelters for children in its care. A third service provider, speaking anonymously, said children are being bounced around unfairly because of slipshod work by DSS, fueling stress and trauma.

She mentioned two children who had just been removed and then returned to her shelter: “Two weeks later they came right back because there was not electricity in the [parent’s] house. I have trouble believing that no one at DSS thought about checking on electricity to make sure it was in the right person’s name and the bill had been paid, and that happens a lot.”

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