April 17, 2014

DSS director: “I respectfully decline to resign,” while Haley, Shealy fight on Facebook (AUDIO)

Koller in hearing

Koller sits for three hours of questions

The state’s top child welfare official says she will not step down. After a long-awaited appearance in front of a special Senate panel, Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller told media, “I respectfully decline to resign.”  That is despite two Democrats calling for her ouster as the panel probes the death of children in DSS care.

Otherwise, director Koller gave senators what they asked for: three hours of detailed testimony about how the agency handled two highly-publicized child death cases, her views on case overloads and defense of her leadership style.  Watch entire hearing here.

Immediately afterward, her boss, Gov. Nikki Haley applauded Koller. In a statement from her spokesman, Doug Mayer:

“Director Koller showed today exactly why the governor appointed her in the first place – she is a committed advocate for South Carolina’s children, and someone who has overseen dramatic improvement in an agency that deals with some of the toughest, most tragic situations in our state. Governor Haley is proud of Director Koller, the staff at DSS, and the changes they have made, changes that have resulted in a decrease in child fatalities, an increase in adoptions, and the ability to provide more services to children and families statewide than ever before.”

The real dust-up happened, however, on Facebook, where the rift between Gov. Haley and panel member (and her Senate ally) Katrina Shealy became public. Read The State’s recap. This tension had been simmering since Shealy began questioning the governor’s appointee months ago.

“Sometimes others in that process could have done more”

Lourie in committee

Lourie disagreed with some of Koller’s statistics

The panel made up of senators  Tom Young, R-Aiken, Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and Joel Lourie, D-Richland, questioned Koller on the case of Robert Guinyard, a four-year-old who was beaten to death by his parents in 2013. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts opined in an earlier hearing that there was not enough oversight leading to his murder.

Koller disputed that, saying her agency’s wishes for the Guinyard’s parental rights to be terminated were overridden by a judge and the Richland County guardian ad litem program.

“When a tragedy like Robert’s takes place, someone has surely failed that child, first and foremost his parents who beat him to death,” Koller stated. “But sometimes others in that process as well, could have done more.”

She ordered an investigation into what happened and leveled some of the blame on law enforcement.

“The findings of the investigation…resulted in eight staff members no longer working at DSS, including many who failed to follow DSS established child protection protocol.” Koller said.

“I want you to know that we also found good work in Robert’s case, like the decision to go to court to free Robert and his sister,” she added.

AUDIO: Koller recaps Guinyard case (4:41)

This led to questioning of staff caseloads, a chronic complaint in hearings and in emails sent to the committee. Senators say they are concerned that stringent goals and statistical improvement are driving the agency–and driving workers away.

“I don’t think children should be considered goals. I think children are living, breathing human beings and not numbers,” challenged Sen. Shealy amidst scattered applause in the hearing room.

“I agree, I agree,” Koller shot back.”And if we don’t measure what we do and if we don’t be committed to improving the lives of children and we just hope and do the work and just hope it  comes out OK, you are not going to get good outcomes.”

Shealy countered,”But sometimes we let the numbers get in our way,”

“I have not done that ma’am.” Koller responded.

“Communities are a part of keeping children safe”
Another case under scrutiny involved the daycare death of 3-month-old Kellie Rynn Martin. Her mother testified that she saw the daycare listed on the DSS site.

Koller said that state law precluded DSS from inspecting the registered –not licensed– home daycare.

“We never got a complaint in seven years,” Koller said.

Prior to that, she says, there were complaints on the same home and they were corrected and “left alone.”

“We don’t get enough people calling in complaints,” Koller insisted. “Can you imagine the traffic of the parents coming and going of the parents picking these children up and dropping them off? Twenty-three children and there were supposed to be six there?”

“People need to understand that the communities are part of keeping children safe,” Koller told the senators.

Koller agreed to face the Senate panel again in two weeks.

SC Big Story: DSS director on the hot seat today

DSS PANEL

Panelists (L-R) Lourie, Young, staffer Mason Thomas, Shealy

After months of negative claims and stories about South Carolina Department of Social Services leadership, the agency’s director Lillian Koller will have her turn to answer a Senate panel’s questions.  A DSS subcommittee has been holding hearings on the death of children under DSS oversight — and many other issues have bubbled up.

Koller suffered a stroke late last year and her doctor ordered her to avoid stressful situations. A grilling by lawmakers in a what may be a hostile room could be just that.  Many who have spoken publicly are former — and fired– employees, along with distraught families who have lost a child.

Koller’s top officials have readily answered the lawmakers’ questions, citing higher rates of closed cases and better standards of case management, despite almost a 50 percent turnover in DSS county directors.

Subcommittee chairman Tom Young, R-Aiken, is known for his even, down-to-earth temperament. But recent testimony has left him impatient to hear from Koller herself.

“ There are substantial issues that have been raised and we’ve made it very clear that she needs to testify before the subcommittee.”

The Senate is currently tweaking a bill to allow DSS officials to speak more openly about the agency’s cases, if called to address a legislative investigation. Young submitted the bill to remedy case privacy issues that arose during his panel’s hearings.

– Despite the wishes of the State Board of Education, Education Superintendent Mick Zais discovered he had the power pull out of assessments related to Common Core Standards. Read his letter to the board.  Meanwhile, the House sent the Senate a bill that does the same thing. Rep. Andy Patrick (R-Hilton Head) told his colleagues “We can either adopt that assessment that is developed by somebody else or we can develop our own assessment much the same way as we did with PASS.”

– While the House is on spring break, the Senate passed a bill to require the Department of Insurance explore a catastrophe model more suited to South Carolina, instead of the Florida-based model used now.  It provides more information to homeowners to help them make better insurance purchase decisions. The measure also increases to $3 million an annual pool for low to moderate income homeowners to apply for grants to weatherize their houses.

SC teachers group questions need for “layoff language” in Senate bill

Senator Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, has introduced a series of bills focused on teacher performance. The one most likely to get to a vote this session requires a written policy for layoffs, and he wants to see seniority taken out of the equation.

His bill, S. 1144, requires that,  ”Teacher effectiveness, as demonstrated through summative performance ratings, shall be the most significant factor in district reduction in force policies.”  The measure has moved to the full Senate, but he says the bill was “watered down” in a recent committee session to include some mention of seniority in considering what teachers might be laid off in tough budget times.

“Do you take what you can get or do you fight like crazy on this issue that seniority shouldn’t be considered at all. At the end of the day, we are moving the bill forward and it’s still going to be in the discussion,” Thurmond told South Carolina Radio Network.

But the South Carolina Education Association, the teachers advocacy group, questions the need for the bill. The group’s president Jackie Hicks says this policy is already in place:

“Each year we look at these issues, but not from a mandate from the Legislature. We do that within the school system,” Hicks said. “You’re also taking away local control.”

Hicks says it should be up to local districts’ measurements and reduction in force (RIF) policies which she says do not rely on seniority.

Hicks, an educator herself, says he helped formulate RIF policies for different districts.

“We looked at the district needs and what their vision for the students was to be,  and finally you look at seniority. All other things being level, then that was the last thing we looked at,” Hicks argued.

The bill is likely to face further debate in the Senate in the next two weeks.

SC Big Story: Senators race against a lawsuit and another election debacle

Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens)

Sen. Larry Martin says failure to fix the counties’ election setup would create havoc leading to voting day.

Senators are scrambling to fix how county election commissions are set up– because the way they were originally formed is probably unconstitutional.  Upstate voter activist Ned Sloan has sued South Carolina and the General Assembly over how lawmakers used their power to make local laws that did not apply statewide.  Single county state legislation is unconstitutional.  (READ MORE)

Sloan has changed the Legislature’s way of doing business in the past. One of his lawsuits stopped the unconstitutional practice of “bobtailing” bill together that are unrelated.

Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin , R-Pickens, wants to beat Sloan to it by undoing current county election commissions and voter registration boards.  His bill (S. 866) would have the governor appoint a joint election commission with the recommendation of the state legislators from that county.

Seven counties have split offices: Greenville, Spartanburg, Greenwood, Richland, Williamsburg, Horry and Dillon, so lawmakers are wrestling with how to allow them to stay intact.

The Senate approved an amendment that would give more weight to Senate lawmakers’ recommendations and would create more party balance. All of those have to be worked through and the bill passed along to the House before May 1, or the county boards stay as they are.  That would mean Sloan’s lawsuit moves forward and the potential for the upcoming election to be declared unconstitutional.

That kind of scenario is fresh in the minds of lawmakers, after hundred of candidates were dumped from the 2012 primary ballot over a technicality.

“If (the decision) happens right in the election cycle, which is entirely possible, we can have a real problem on our hands if the very folks who are conducting the elections are put out of business,” Martin told South Carolina Radio Network.

[Read more...]

Sen. Tim Scott to question HHS nominee Burwell

Sen. Tim Scott (File)

Sen. Tim Scott (File)

Senator Tim Scott’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold confirmation hearings on Sylvia Burwell, the nominee to replace former federal Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius stepped down suddenly last week.

The South Carolina Republican voted for Burwell when she was named to head the U.S. Office of Management and budget, but he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, “No doubt she was a good choice for OBM, but that doesn’t make her a good choice for HHS.”

This time’s vetting of Burwell will include scrutiny of the program she’ll be taking on:

“But the questions that we have to get to, however, is whether or not Director Burwell will be serving for the president of the United States with his agenda as the primary objective or will she get into the details of the numbers and she’s obviously strong on the numbers and figure out whether 7 million people actually signed up and paid, or whether it’s other independent sources suggest, that we’ve had fewer than 5 million sign up and pay, as well as looking at the fact that when you have 6 million cancellations and 7 million signed up by the president’s suggestion, that what is the actual number of those who have signed up and paid?

“So, we’re going to have an opportunity to discuss with Director Burwell her approach to making sure that American people are the primary objective and not politics.” Scott said.”