October 30, 2014

Audit: DSS data not reliable for child abuse, deaths

DSS Acting Director Amber Gillum says her agency is working to address its problems (Image: SCETV)

DSS Acting Director Amber Gillum says her agency is working to address its problems (Image: SCETV)

A highly-anticipated audit of South Carolina’s child welfare services released on Friday found a lack of qualified caseworkers, inadequate protections for children, and a significant underreporting of the true number of child fatalities at the Department of Social Services.

State law requires that county coroners report violent, unexpected, and unexplained child fatalities to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). But auditors from the Legislative Audit Council found 152 children’s deaths from 2009 to 2013 that were not included in the SLED database. That included 39 children who died from gunshot wounds and 25 more whose cause of death could not be determined.

According to the audit, it appeared coroners did not report the deaths to SLED in 104 out of those 152 cases. The remaining 48 cases are believed to have been reported, but did not appear in the SLED database. When contacted, some coroners said SLED had investigated the deaths and the coroners did not report the data because they believed the agency would already have the information.

The total number also includes some gaps in its criteria, such as children killed in collisions while their parent or guardian was driving under the influence.

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Harrell “mug shot” released after criticism

Image: 1st Circuit Solicitor's Office

SLED had refused to release this photo, saying it was a part of the active case files (Image: 1st Circuit Solicitor’s Office)

Prosecutors released a “mug shot” photo of suspended state House Speaker Bobby Harrell on Wednesday. The release came a day after state police first refused to make the image public, sparking complaints from a press attorney that the once-powerful politician was receiving preferential treatment.

The move by First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe came after the State Law Enforcement Division had told news outlets on Tuesday that it would not release the photograph taken during Harrell’s s processing after his court appearance this week.

A SLED spokesman told the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper that, since Harrell was not formally arrested or booked at a jail, the traditional processing photo is part of the agency’s case file and cannot be released because the case in in court.

South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender called SLED’s position “nonsense” and added that it appeared the agency was giving Harrell preferential treatment.

“I can’t imagine any legitimate reason to seal a mug shot,” Bender told South Carolina Radio Network.  “There’s nothing in the law that I know of that would allow the sealing of a mug shot.”

The photograph was taken after Harrell was given an $18,000 personal recognizance bond. He faces nine counts related to misusing campaign funds and lying to state ethics officials in an attempt to cover it up. The Speaker has repeatedly insisted he did not intentionally violate the law.

Harrell told the Post & Courier that he supported the photo being released to the public.

While Harrell’s case is somewhat unique in state history, it is not unprecedented for law enforcement agencies to release processing photos when there is no arrest. Texas Governor Rick Perry smiled as he was booked following an indictment in August.

State open records law does allow law enforcement agencies to keep secret information about ongoing investigations if that information would compromise the case or endanger a person’s life. But those criteria do not appear to apply to the photo of Harrell..







Emma’s Law goes into effect

Steven Andereck of the ignition interlock manufacturing company SmartStart shows how the breathalyzer works in a 2013 demonstration

Steven Andereck of the ignition interlock manufacturing company SmartStart shows how the breathalyzer works in a 2013 demonstration

Tougher DUI restrictions passed by lawmakers earlier this year, known as “Emma’s Law,” go into effect Wednesday.

The law is aimed at curbing drunken driving by using what’s known as an “ignition interlock device” on cars belonging to individuals who were convicted of driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of more than .15 percent.

South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services spokesman Peter O’Boyle said the offender must blow into the device for his or her car to start. He said a convicted driver will have to use it for at least six months.

“We have spent months training and preparing for Emma’s Law and had to rebuild our computer systems to implement it,” SCDPPPS Director Kela Thomas said in a statement. “But it will be worth it to enhance the safety of our state’s streets and highways.”

The law is named after 6-year-old Emma Longstreet, a Lexington girl who was killed after a repeat drunk driving offender hit her family’s car on New Year’s Day 2012. Emma’s parents David and Karen Longstreet worked to get the bill passed in the state legislature. Governor Nikki Haley signed the measure into law in April.

Another section of the new law requires any person convicted of DUI at least twice to install the device if they ever want to drive legally again. Previously, a driver could “wait out” their suspension period.

All users of ignition interlocks will now have to upgrade the devices to include cameras. DPPPS officials said this requirement is meant to prevent others from blowing into the breathalyzer on the driver’s behalf to get a car started.

There are similar laws in 35 other states.

Bill Dubensky contributed to this report

Two GOP leaders drop out of SC House Speaker’s race, clearing way for Lucas

Acting House Speaker Jay Lucas (Image: SCETV)

Acting House Speaker Jay Lucas (Image: SCETV)

It appears acting SC House Speaker Jay Lucas will soon have the word “acting” dropped from his title.

Two Republicans who had been vying for the Speaker position sent a letter to their colleagues on Tuesday that announced they were dropping out of the race. State Reps. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, and Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, are both former GOP House Majority Leaders who had been seeking the chamber’s most powerful position.

The move almost certainly clears the way for Lucas, a Hartsville Republican believed to have bipartisan support, to be elected Speaker when legislators return for a special session after Election Day.

“After reading articles that confirm a commitment to change by each of the candidates for Speaker, it is time to move forward,” Bingham and Merrill wrote. “For that reason, we are withdrawing our names from con-sideration and announcing our support for Representative Jay Lucas.”

The letter noted that Lucas has committed to seeking rule changes that will term limit the position of Speaker, allow each committee to hire its own staff (rather than each being hired by the Speaker’s Office), and establishing a committee to review all House rules and make additional reform recommendations.

Lucas has been serving as acting speaker since House Speaker Bobby Harrell suspended himself from office earlier this month. Harrell’s move came a day after a Richland County grand jury indicted him on nine counts related to misusing campaign funds and misleading state ethics officials. Harrell has repeatedly insisted he did not intentionally violate the law.

Harrell was first elected speaker in 2005. Lucas had been serving as the chamber’s second-in-command since 2011.

Harrell bond hearing scheduled for Monday

House Speaker Bobby Harrell (File)

House Speaker Bobby Harrell (File)

Indicted SC House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, will have a bond hearing on Monday morning.

Harrell was suspended as House Speaker after a Richland County grand jury indicted him on nine counts related to misusing campaign funds and hiding it from state ethics officials.

The bond hearing is scheduled for 9:00 on September 29 at the Richland County Judicial Center. Circuit Judge John Hayes, III will preside over the hearing, according to a release from the 1st Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Harrell was indicted after 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe took over grand jury proceedings from state Attorney General Alan Wilson following months of legal proceedings. The suspended Speaker has repeatedly insisted he did not knowingly violate state ethics laws.

State Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, has taken over Harrell’s duties as Acting Speaker since September 11.