South Carolina’s child welfare agency has agreed to house fewer children in institutions and increased face-to-face visits between workers and foster children as part of a new settlement agreement announced Friday.
The settlement, if approved by a federal judge, would end a class-action lawsuit filed against the Department of Social Services by Children’s Rights, a national legal group that seeks to defend the rights of abused and neglected children, and the South Carolina Legal Appleseed Justice Center. The groups filed the lawsuit in January 2015, claiming a shortage of foster homes and heavy caseloads for DSS employees was creating a system where children were being kept in institutions and frequently maltreated by foster parents without serious follow-up on abuse claims.
DSS had already been working to resolve many of the same issues raised by the lawsuit, following a public outcry over a caseworker shortage and cases where children investigated by DSS were being assaulted or harmed with little response from the state agency.
“We commend Governor Haley and her administration for recognizing the need for change and doing the right thing for kids,” Children’s Rights litigation director Ira Lustbader said in a statement. “The fact that state leaders came to the table early, wanting to find ways to improve the treatment of young people in foster care, stands to be life-changing for these children.”
Under the agreement, DSS would have to reduce caseloads for its caseworkers. Previous reporting has shown DSS workers continue to be strained with caseloads that are often over three or four times national standards, with many workers being responsible for over 50 kids. The problems with understaffing and high turnover have continued despite efforts by the agency and lawmakers to hire hundreds more employees. DSS says it has cut the number of caseworkers with 50 or more children by half since 2014.
The settlement also requires measurable improvements in monthly face-to-face visits between caseworkers and children as well as the screening and investigation of reports of maltreatment of kids in care. It also requires less reliance on non-family housing for foster kids. When the lawsuit was filed, South Carolina placed a higher percentage of children age 12 and under in group facilities than any other state. The lawsuit even claimed some children were being housed in state juvenile prisons or mental health facilities because the state did not have enough foster homes for them to stay.
DSS has been focusing on making it easier for families to become foster parents. A spokeswoman said the agency has reduced the amount of time to license foster families by an average of eight months.
“DSS cannot do this work alone, but we must steer the course…realigning systems to achieve desired outcomes, reviewing data to track progress, and continuously improving services to children and families,” Agency director Susan Alford said in an announcement. “We will not reach these outcomes overnight; but our goal is to establish a strong foundation which builds a continuum of services for children that will be sustainable.”
The agreement would also require immediate actions for those children overdue for check-ups and treatment, and measurable improvements in medical, dental and mental health screening and treatment for all children in care going forward.
There were 11 individuals specifically identified in the lawsuit, but it claimed class-action status for the roughly 4,300 foster children in DSS care.