Free Times has uncovered two major revelations in the controversy surrounding the state’s child welfare agency: First, that staffers for Gov. Nikki Haley asked Republican senators to soft-pedal their investigation of the Department of Social Services so as not to make the governor look bad; and second, that federal investigators are looking into allegations against the agency.
Gov. Nikki Haley last week professed again her confidence in Lillian Koller, the embattled director of the Department of Social Services, whose tenure has been marked by a high number of child fatalities in cases associated with Child Protective Services, an alleged policy of outsourcing child welfare cases in an effort to improve the bureau’s statistics, a staggering rate of employee turnover and an apparent disdain for transparency.
But that confidence might not be shared by Haley’s staff, at least not by Chief of Staff Ted Pitts and Director of Legislative Affairs Katherine Veldran, who several legislative sources say admonished Republican senators against making the governor look bad with their probe into the agency.
According to those well-placed sources, the Haley staffers met with Republican senators on a subcommittee investigating Child Protective Services in the wake of their first hearing in October. Pitts and Veldran allegedly told Senators Katrina Shealy and Tom Young to avoid embarrassing Haley or hurting her chances of re-election in the course of their hearings. (Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie is the third member of the subcommittee.)
The sources say the Haley camp is acutely aware that Democrats backing her opponent Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) are pushing a narrative of first-term incompetency in the Haley administration — cataloging cabinet agency controversies such as the massive taxpayer data breach at the Department of Revenue and the bungled response to a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County by the Department of Health and Environmental Control — and is set against allowing Democrats any more ammunition.
Haley’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Reached for comment, Shealy said, “Nobody in the state of South Carolina is a bigger supporter of Nikki Haley than I am. This has nothing to do with politics. We’ve got to find out what the problem is with the Department of Social Services.”
And Young said, “Our subcommittee is committed to pressing forward with this investigation in order to seek the truth so that we may make the best possible recommendations to the General Assembly to better protect the children in South Carolina.” [Editor’s Note: Young submitted a statement to Free Times last week but did not respond directly to requests for comment. After publication of this article, Young contacted Free Times to say that he had not been pressured to go easy on Haley and that he had only received one request for comment, to which he replied with the previously mentioned statement.]
But answers haven’t been easily forthcoming, as Koller has a note from her doctor that says she had a stroke in December and excuses her from attending the subcommittee hearings. Despite declarations of grave concern and frustration from all three senators on the subcommittee, Koller is not expected at the hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday. However, her staff has said she has been showing up to work and she has been spotted at the State House.
“It needs to come from the top, which I would think would be the director of the agency, but if she’s not going to answer questions, somebody has to,” Shealy says, addressing the enduring lack of answers coming from DSS.
In Koller’s absence, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and several former DSS managers are scheduled to testify at the hearing.
Meanwhile, another set of sources with knowledge of DSS’ inner workings say they have been contacted and questioned by federal investigators, who are concerned about alleged misuse of federal funds at the agency. They say that instead of requesting budget increases from the General Assembly to cover agency costs, Koller and well-paid outside consultants have developed lucrative schemes to finagle federal funds through outside institutions.
Reached by phone on Monday, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of a federal investigation into DSS.
As for DSS, it hasn’t replied to requests for comment since Free Times approached the agency in early March about leaked internal documents that showed a failure to follow policies pertaining to investigative procedures that are codified in law and a severe lack of understanding of agency policies on behalf of low-level workers.
A list of questions submitted by workers to DSS management included this troubling inquiry: “Should I answer yes or no to abuse/neglect question if making a referral to preventative services?” An outsider might expect the facts of the case to determine whether a child would be listed as abused or neglected, but apparently not at Koller’s DSS, where leadership has repeatedly denied that it is referring cases of abuse to outside agencies in an underhanded effort to improve its statistics. Numerous former DSS employees have refuted that line, saying that is exactly what Koller and her deputies have instructed. They criticize DSS leadership for a clinical focus on statistics above all else and they question the accuracy of its reporting.
But those statistics are exactly what Haley cited in voicing her continued support for Koller last week. “All the numbers that I worked with her on have improved. Let’s be clear, one child death is one death too many,” Haley said. “Our job is to make sure we constantly improve those numbers. … Every member of that agency is committed to that under the leadership of Lillian Koller.”
But things aren’t so rosy from where the senators on the subcommittee sit. In late January, Lourie told Free Times, “Since the hearings began, Sen. Shealy and I’ve been inundated with families, former DSS employees and even current employees who are calling to say, ‘Y’all are on the right track. Keep it up.’
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