Members of the Senate subcommittee charged with investigating allegations of severe mismanagement at the Department of Social Services are vowing to continue their work to repair the agency after its embattled director resigned June 2.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the traditionally secretive department is ready to address its critics’ concerns, as Director Lillian Koller never conceded any wrongdoing on behalf of the agency’s leadership. Neither does Gov. Nikki Haley, who still insists Koller had been doing a great job, appear ready to acknowledge the agency’s tragic screw-ups.
In promising to continue its investigative hearings, subcommittee chairman Sen. Tom Young (R-Aiken) said at a June 4 meeting, “Director [Lillian] Koller’s resignation does not fix the problems at DSS that we have heard about in our hearings, but it does open the door to begin rebuilding the agency through renewed leadership and meaningful policy change.”
He added that his subcommittee was allowing DSS time to adjust to its interim leadership before summoning representatives for further testimony.
Young was the only senator on the three-member panel not to have called for Koller’s departure after months of hearing testimony from families associated with DSS, former agency workers and coroners who decried DSS’ lack of transparency, inadequate resources, policy decisions and individual actions that they claimed led to child suffering and, in a few tragic cases, preventable deaths.
“The director leaving was not our ultimate goal when we started this,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington), a longtime ally of Haley who’s been getting the governor’s cold shoulder since calling on Koller to resign. “Our goal has been to help children in South Carolina, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
“We got new numbers just last week of caseworkers that are overloaded, and our goal is to find out the solution to the problem to make it better, not only for the children of South Carolina, but for the employees at the Department of Social Services because they cannot continue to be overworked to the point where they cannot get their job done and feel comfortable in their job.”
Richland County’s Sen. Joel Lourie, the subcommittee’s lone Democrat, had specific messages he wanted to send.
“To the employees of the agency, I want to say, hang in there,” he said, promising to work with the General Assembly and the governor’s office to reform DSS and provide it with necessary resources. Lourie also said that if he heard of any whistleblowers being targeted for retribution, whether they’re current or former DSS employees, he’d go to the attorney general and SLED.
“To the governor, I’d say, ‘We’re going to vet this next nominee for director more than we have any nominee in my career,” Lourie said. “I’ll hope you’ll talk to children’s advocates around the state, and I can assure you that this subcommittee, the full General Committee and the full Senate will vet this next nominee from top to bottom and make sure we’ve got the right leadership in place.”
One such advocate and whistleblower was on hand to deliver to the senators a message of her own. After the hearing adjourned, Linda Martin, a former DSS deputy director who served at the agency for decades before Koller fired her last year, urged the senators to purge the remnants of the Koller regime.
“What I want to say is that removing [Koller] is a good start but you have to go much deeper to effectively change what’s happened at the Department of Social Services,” Martin told Free Times after the hearing. “Certainly the [interim leadership] continues to use the same policies [she] put in place, so nothing has changed.”
“To get the agency up and running again, you have to make sure everybody is in a position they’re competent at and understand,” Martin said.
DSS did not reply to Free Times’ requests for comment on how it intends to address the concerns raised in the subcommittee hearings.
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