The S.C. Department of Social Services had its turn to answer Senate panel questions about its handling of foster care cases.
In three hours of testimony last week, families and foster care providers shared dramatic stories with the three-person oversight subcommittee, prompting Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, to describe what he heard as “like scenes out of a horror movie.”
One of those scenarios could not be followed up Wednesday because of state law preventing the agency from testifying in certain cases. Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken, chairs the special panel and said he is trying to arrange a separate hearing on that matter and other cases of children who have died in foster care.
AUDIO: Testimony of Kelly and Rob Heidt, grandparents of a child mistakenly taken into care (10:15)
DSS cites improvements in numbers of deaths, community interventions
Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller did not appear at the hearing. Her staff said she is recovering from a stroke and is under doctor’s orders to limit her activity.
Jessica Hanak-Coulter, DSS Deputy Director of Human Services, did not have specific case information, but took agency operations questions from Lourie, Young and Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
In rebuttal to last-week’s claims that DSS took children out a home in the middle of the night, Hanak-Coulter said that DSS does not have the authority to take a child out of a home. She also told lawmakers that the agency has been making significant changes under the Koller administration.
Hanak-Coulter said that before 2012, child abuse complaints were treated two ways:
“They were basically screened out or no action was done at that time. Since January 2012, we have worked with community partners to where those families who did not rise to the level of needing an investigation would receive services from the community. They were basically screened out or no action was done at that time. Since January of 2012, we have worked with community partners, to where those families who did not rise to the level of needing an investigation would receive services from the community,” Hanak-Coulter said.
Staffing problems at DSS and SLED
One of those community partner organizations testified Wednesday. Rex Uberman, state director of nonprofit SAFY , told the panel that his staff has seen more than 8,000 S.C. families in the past two years.
“Our staff are highly trained, highly educated and skilled professionals in the field of social work, clinical services and intervention … many of our employees have a Masters of Social Work degree,” Uberman said.
DSS can hire the services of SAFY employees with federal money, but its own staff is in flux.
Hanak-Coulter said that about 50 percent of the county directors have left or moved to other jobs in the past three years. She also alluded to salaries being a problem in recruiting and retaining employees. About half of DSS’s total staff of 2,282 are caseworkers and there are 143 current openings for full-time jobs.
State law enforcement has asked for four new positions to investigate child deaths. Capt. Michael Green has been with the SLED Special Victim’s Unit for a month. He said too little manpower and a heavy caseload has kept the current seven-person staff from doing on-the-scene investigations every time.
“If we can get to these death scenes when they happen, we can make a much bigger difference,” he told the panel.”If local law enforcement and or the coroner calls us initially, we can respond to the scene and do a much better and thorough investigation.”
“Do we currently have a backlog, are we working old cases?” asked Shealy.
“Yes, ma’am, we are,” responded Green.
Hearings and questions ahead
Senators Lourie, Young and Shealy have asked DSS for more information. According to Senate staff, the panel expects to have more hearings involving DSS. The senators are also planning hearings with community government organizations and county coroners to further explore issues that have come out of two days of testimony. Some of the questions are:
– how coroners follow standards for reporting suspicious cases;
– how do DSS and law enforcement work together to take a child out of a home;
– what are the reasons for an almost 50 percent turnover rate in county directors;
– are the goals set for reducing the number of kids in foster care realistic or arbitrary; and
– why do county offices operate differently across the state?
More hearings are being scheduled to answer these and other questions — lessening the possibility that a bill will be produced in this session.