Local and State News

DSS Director Finally Testifies, But Senators Aren’t Having It

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Senators aren’t satisfied with what they’re hearing from the director of the S.C. Department of Social Services, who got a chance to defend her agency last week against allegations that it favors numbers over child safety.

On April 16, Lillian Koller, director of the S.C. Department of Social Services, faced a Senate subcommittee looking into how her agency has handled child protection. On the desk in front of her, she’d propped a copy of Dale Carnegie’s Lifetime Plan for Success, its cover facing her as she leaned toward the microphone. (The book collects into one volume Carnegie’s two bestselling books, 1936’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and 1948’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.)

“I wish more than you know that I could have been here before you before today, but under doctors’ restrictions, I could not,” said Koller, who suffered a stroke recently.

She spent quite a bit of time addressing the case of Robert Guinyard, a 4-year-old who was killed by his parents in 2013. Though people who’d previously testified before the subcommittee alleged DSS had failed the child, Koller said DSS actually tried at least twice to separate Guinyard from his parents, once in 2010 and again in 2011. Each time, she said, Richland County CASA’s guardians ad litem opposed the separation, and a judge ordered that the child be returned to his parents because there was insufficient evidence to terminate their custody.

(According to Richland County CASA, it’s true that they supported reunification of Guinyard with his parents, but only because the case had been pending so long; they say delays by DSS made the situation worse and allowed Guinyard’s mother to evade the allegations against her.)

Koller also said the cops erred, and read from a report in which an officer summoned to Guinyard’s house described marks on the child as “not bruising, just Robert’s complexion.” Guinyard’s extended family, too, bears some responsibility, she said, for not reporting more of the abuse.

“With the horror of a mother who cannot even imagine beating your own child to death, and as a former prosecuting attorney, I pray every night that the Richland County prosecutor will find justice in this case,” Koller said.

“My point in addressing these tragic cases is not to shift responsibility,” she said. “Whenever a child loses his or her life, there is more than enough responsibility to go around. My point is to help this committee and the public understand these cases are not cut and dry. We have an obligation to balance the safety of the child with the rights of the parents.”

But once senators began questioning her, Koller admitted her own agency bore some responsibility as well. Eight workers are no longer with the Richland County DSS office in the wake of Guinyard’s death (some were fired; others resigned); Koller said they failed to follow proper intake procedures.

Koller also admitted her agency is not doing so well at seeing children within the mandated 24 hours once the agency decides to open a case on them — an issue on which Free Times reported last week. However, she argued, DSS’ failure to meet those standards hasn’t endangered children.

“Are there additional fatalities that have arisen during that period? The answer is no,” she said. And, she stressed, “We have greatly improved the timeliness of completing investigations.”

“When I got here we had to clear up a backlog of nearly 25,000 investigations” that hadn’t been closed, she said. “We did it in four months. This agency has taken very seriously the issue of being timely with investigations.”

She suggested the senators were looking at the wrong data — the reports they were using to judge her progress were simply “management tools,” she said.

“It’s because the documents you’re looking at are not what was done; it’s only what was put into the system,” she said. “[Caseworkers] do their work in the field; they get around to putting it in the system as soon as they can.” Thus the reports, which are run on Sundays, often don’t reflect visits made on Fridays, she said.

Sen. Joel Lourie didn’t like that answer.

“In Region 2, 61 percent of the children were not seen in 24 hours,” Lourie said, looking at a weekly report that had been run on a Sunday. “Must have been a hell of a lot were seen on Friday, then.”

Lourie repeatedly asked Koller why she hasn’t asked for more funding from the Legislature. Does that mean she has enough caseworkers?

Case loads at the agency vary wildly, and senators spent some time trying to pin down Koller on the average case load. At one point, Koller said the average was six.

“I have emails from all over the state … from current employees,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy. “They’re telling me they have 45 to 50 cases, they tell me they have 70 cases. … You’d have to do a lot of averaging to get from 45 to 6,” Shealy said.

After the hearing, Lourie told The State there was “a void in leadership at the agency,” and Shealy has made no secret of her displeasure with Koller’s testimony.

But news from the hearing was quickly overwhelmed by news of a Facebook spat between Shealy and Gov. Nikki Haley about whether or not Koller was an atheist. When someone posted on Haley’s Facebook wall that Koller was an atheist, Haley fired back, “I wish you and Sen. Shealy would stop spreading that lie. She is Jewish and the daughter of Holocaust survivors.” Shealy took to Facebook herself, posting, “I am so angry!!!!!” and continuing, “I asked the Governor’s staff about a rumor that was going around back months ago in confidence and they told me in a private meeting that director Koller was Jewish — I accepted that answer and that was the end of that conversation and that was the last time I talked about it other than when someone else ask me the question and I told them she was Jewish! Now I am being reprimanded on the Governor’s Facebook Page saying I am spreading rumors… Someone owes me an apology!!! I care about the children of SC and I don’t give a flying flip what the Director is… Well that is not true either, I would worry if she were atheist but I was told she wasn’t so why would they bring that back up??”

Koller will face the subcommittee again in as little as two weeks, according to Sen. Brian Young, the chairman.

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