The South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) says it received more than 27,000 reports of child abuse last year. Of those, nearly 17,000 were dismissed because the agency could not substantiate whether abuse or neglect occurred. However, DSS said 4.3 percent of the children in those cases ended up being reported again within six months.
Agency director Lillian Koller says that is not an acceptable number and criticized the attitude of many at DSS. “Right now, we’re just hoping and praying we don’t see them again. And the thing is, we do see them again,” Koller said in an exclusive interview Thursday with South Carolina Radio Network, “Finally it escalates to a point where something really bad happens and we go and remove the child… you’ve got to do this stuff at the front end.”
Audio: Koller talks about her efforts to reform child protective services (8:52)
Koller was appointed to the agency by Governor Nikki Haley earlier this year and has since focused much of her energy on reforming the culture at DSS. To accomplish that, she created a list of what she called “Wildly Important Goals” (WIG’s). One of the WIGs tries to reduce the number of children that investigators miss when they screen thousands of cases each month.
Koller wants to lower the rate to 2.8 percent (roughly 446 kids) by September 30, 2012. South Carolina is one of only a few states that tracks the number of repeat cases over a six-month period. Koller said it is also the first to set such a low rate as its goal.
The new rules emphasize that caseworkers do not have to prove that abuse exists before DSS can step in, only that it is likely. “The standard of proof is not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’,” Koller said, “It is preponderance of the evidence. It’s 51 percent more likely than not.”
Koller said she recognized that caseworkers have to be careful to make sure innocent parents are not accidentally caught up under the tougher rules. However, she said investigators should be concerned when there are multiple reports involving the same family. She said most of those 700 missed cases last year were reported 3 to 8 times before DSS finally took action.
Other new rules require caseworkers to put more emphasis in what teachers, guidance counselors, and school nurses say if they come forward. “In our state, they must report what they suspect is abuse and neglect,” Koller said, “Yet, when it hits our door and we investigate it, we kind of treat them as if they’re just anybody else reporting (it). We’re not giving extra weight as we should.”
The changes were announced at a staff meeting last month. Child safety advocates say the rules give South Carolina one of the nation’s toughest standards.