A state senator on Tuesday called for Gov. Nikki Haley to remove the director of South Carolina’s child services agency, saying that new data from last month shows the agency in “complete meltdown.”
But Haley’s spokesman said the governor refused, calling the accusations politically motivated.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, has been a frequent critic of the state Department of Social Services the past four months, previously calling on agency director Lillian Koller to resign. But now the Democratic senator says a new internal report inside DSS has prompted him to change tactics and instead call for the governor to fire Koller.
“When you have low employee morale, bad things are going to happen,” Lourie told reporters during a Statehouse press conference Tuesday afternoon. “But when that agency deals with vulnerable children, the outcome of that dysfunction can be very tragic.”
Lourie showed reporters new numbers from DSS internal data that showed nearly half of all children involved in reported abuse or neglect cases from March 1-31 were not visited within 24 hours, as state law requires. The senator said he was angry that DSS reported his home Richland County did not have in-person visits for more than 70 percent of cases within 24 hours. York County was nearly 74 percent of cases in March, while Anderson County was 71 percent. The statewide average was 46 percent.
But DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus says those percentages are misleading and “confuse intake with investigations.” She maintained that DSS investigations are begun within 24 hours for 95 percent of cases referred to the agency.
“(P)ush reports are a snapshot in time of work that has been entered into our computer system and do not always reflect all the work completed on a case,” Matheus wrote. “The data the Senator referenced today was previously explained by the Director as being a management tool, not a performance measure.”
Each county DSS office is also required to undergo an audit and quality review every five years. But Lourie noted that offices in Dorchester, Lee, Fairfield, Kershaw, Jasper, Chester, and Marlboro counties had not undergone the reviews since 2009, with the Dorchester and Lee reviews last coming seven years ago.
“I’m using her numbers to show the agency is in complete meltdown right now,” the senator said.
DSS staffers provided their own release shortly after Lourie’s press conference showing that Jasper, Chester, and Marlboro counties were being reviewed this spring — although all three began after the Senate began looking into DSS in January. Matheus said the other counties had been reviewed in 2011. Lourie questioned why that information had not been released until now.
The Haley Administration continued to defend the governor’s appointee. “Senator Lourie can call for Director Koller’s resignation every day until the November election if he wants, since his motivation is so obviously political,” spokesman Doug Mayer said in an emailed statement. “But it won’t change these facts: under her leadership child deaths are down 25 percent, adoptions are up 11 percent, and DSS has provided more services statewide than ever before.”
Koller issued her own statement that afternoon, saying she has always worked to improve child safety. “While there are always things we need to improve upon, we have also made great strides in many critical areas,” she wrote. “I do not intend to let politics or any personal agenda impede this agency’s continued progress in making the lives of children and families in South Carolina better.”
Lourie challenged the decline in child deaths. He noted that, while the total number of children’s deaths statewide had declined since 2009, the number of deaths in cases that DSS had investigated remained roughly the same. The State Child Fatality Advisory Committee notes the number of child deaths in DSS-involved cases was 76 in 2010, but 67 in 2013 (a 12% decline).
Richland County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) director J. Paige Greene said problems in her local DSS office are the worst she has ever seen. “The spirit of that agency is crippled,” she told South Carolina Radio Network, although would not say if she supported Koller’s potential removal. “So, whatever it takes to change and bring them to heel — that’s what needs to happen.”
A pair of Republican senators who serve on an investigative committee looking into DSS have also previously made it clear they are unhappy with problems in the agency. But State Sens. Tom Young, R-Aiken, and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, have stopped short of calling for Koller’s ouster.