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”
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.