August 21, 2014

DSS says it needs 200 more employees to meet child welfare demands

DSS deputy director of human services Jessica Hanak-Coulter listens to senators Wednesday (Image: ETV)

DSS deputy director of human services Jessica Hanak-Coulter listens to senators Wednesday (Image: ETV)

Officials at South Carolina’s troubled child services agency say they need an additional 200 employees to meet a new requirement that would ease the load of overworked investigators.

The state Department of Social Services has come under heavy criticism this year after a state Senate committee’s investigations into child deaths found severe problems at the agency, including missed warning signs before child abuse deaths, strained caseworkers sometimes responsible for over 100 children, and failure to follow state law regarding the frequency of child welfare checks. Former DSS director Lillian Koller eventually resigned in June after bipartisan pressure from senators on the committee.

Deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter was back before the Senate General Committee on Wednesday. She told senators the agency has now decided to set a limit of 24 child cases its employees can handle at a time. The National Child Welfare League recommends 12 families (which may include more than one child per family) per caseworker. Hanak-Coulter said the agency will need 202 new employees, including 109 case investigators plus administrators and support staff.

“If we could do the ideal, then it would be no more than 24 children per investigator for those in the initial investigation period,” she told senators.

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Sheheen’s road funding proposal rejects gas tax


State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw

Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen said Tuesday that he does not think South Carolina should increase its gas tax to pay for badly-needed road repairs. Instead he is pushing a plan that would borrow about $500 million and redirect millions more from elsewhere in the state budget.

Sheheen released his plan to improve South Carolina roads on Tuesday, basing it partly off recommendations he previously made in his book “The Right Way.” The proposal calls for the state to issue an estimated $500 million in bonds to pay for immediate work. It also calls on the legislature to dedicate five percent of the general fund budget on top of the approximately $500 million it collects in gas tax revenue each year. Sheheen said he also wants state officials to consider other means to expand funding, including possible tolls to repair and widen Interstate 95, or a new tax on out-of-state trucks that travel South Carolina highways.

But he rejected any increase to South Carolina’s lowest-in-the-nation 17-cent fuel tax. “The gas tax is a declining source of revenue,” he told reporters, adding that vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient. “It’s why we’re in the mess we’re in now, because we solely rely on it. If all we do is rely on the gas tax, we’ll be right back having this discussion five years from now (or) ten years from now.”

Sheheen is challenging Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who has previously said she will propose a plan to increase road funding when state legislators return in January.

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OSHA investigating state school for at-risk youth in McCormick

John de la Howe School (Image: JDLH)

John de la Howe School (Image: JDLH)

Workplace safety officials are now investigating a state-funded school for at-risk youth in McCormick.

The Greenwood Index-Journal reports the state Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is looking into the John de la Howe School aging buildings. The move comes after OSHA said it received a complaint from an anonymous school employee who claimed problems with mold, asbestos, and hazardous chemicals around the school.

The paper reports the complaint describes the administrative building and cafeteria to be in a state of “wanton disrepair,” noting rainwater entering live light fixtures in the cafeteria, large holes inside and out, an outside freezer that can be potentially lock an individual inside, and a lack of a fire suppression system. In the administrative building, the complaint claims there are falling terracotta roof tiles that may contain asbestos

The John de la Howe school has been subject to several probes this year. The state Inspector General issued a report in January that criticized a lack of oversight and controls that led to the school spending almost $87,000 per student enrolled. 65 students are currently enrolled in the school, according to the report. The state Department of Education began temporary oversight of the school this year, in response to the Inspector General’s report and several resignations by school leaders.

The school was established in 1797 according to the will of Dr. John de la Howe. According to the will, de la Howe’s estate of 2000 acres in McCormick County was left to the state to care for 12 poor boys and 12 poor girls in a school based setting with preference to be given to orphans. The school became a state agency in 1918.


SC Supreme Court rules in favor of Attorney General in Harrell dispute

Wilson, Alan

SC Attorney General Alan Wilson

South Carolina’s highest court has ruled in favor of state Attorney General Alan Wilson in the dispute involving South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that Wilson can continue a State Grand Jury investigation into allegations that Harrell misused campaign money and his legislative position for personal gain. The justices ruled the case does not have to be investigated by the House Ethics Committee only.

Circuit Judge Casey Manning had ruled in May that the ethics committee had sole jurisdiction to consider the case. Judge Manning pointed to a 2013 decision by the SC Supreme Court that ruled only the House Ethics Committee, not the courts, could handle civil complaints against current and former state House of Representatives members.

But the Supreme Court justices wrote that the Rainey case was different circumstances. In this case, the court was being asked if the grand jury could consider violations of the State Ethics Act. In a per curiam opinion, the justices ruled they could.

“The Ethics Act criminalizes violations, and it is in the Attorney General’s exclusive discretion to prosecute such violations,” the justices wrote

The case now goes back to circuit court, where Judge Manning will consider Harrell’s original complaint that Wilson should be taken off the case due to a conflict of interest.

Attorneys representing the Speaker have previously claimed Wilson made an implicit threat against Harrell. The staffer claimed Wilson was lobbying for Harrell’s support on a new anti-corruption unit at the time. Wilson denies any quid pro quo and said the conversation was not meant as a threat.

“(A)fter more than a year of investigations the Attorney General was still pursuing this case even though he could not point to a single shred of evidence of criminal wrongdoing,” Harrell said in a statement. “Clearly the Attorney General’s motivations have been corrupted by political motives and that is why he needs to be replaced with a fair and impartial prosecutor.”

The Attorney General’s Office said it would not comment on Wednesday’s ruling.

SC House Democrats leader proposes legalized casinos in SC

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia

One of the Statehouse’s most powerful Democrats says he will propose new legislation next year that would allow casinos in South Carolina.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, argues the fees and tax revenues generated by “well-regulated, upscale” casinos could help provide millions for road repairs. Casinos are currently banned in South Carolina, although two Little River-based cruise boats currently take gamblers to international waters.

“I’m just tired of pretending that the problem with our roads is going to go away, and so doing nothing about it,” Rutherford told South Carolina Radio Network. “I talk to Republicans all the time who tell me that they want to look at what we can do to fix our roads, but the governor has tied one hand behind their back by taking a gas tax… off the table. So what are they to do?”

The announcement came one day after Gov. Nikki Haley said that her administration plans to come up with a road funding measure next year. Haley would not give any further details other than to say her proposal would not increase taxes.

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