A highly-anticipated audit of South Carolina’s child welfare services released on Friday found a lack of qualified caseworkers, inadequate protections for children, and a significant underreporting of the true number of child fatalities at the Department of Social Services.
State law requires that county coroners report violent, unexpected, and unexplained child fatalities to the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). But auditors from the Legislative Audit Council found 152 children’s deaths from 2009 to 2013 that were not included in the SLED database. That included 39 children who died from gunshot wounds and 25 more whose cause of death could not be determined.
According to the audit, it appeared coroners did not report the deaths to SLED in 104 out of those 152 cases. The remaining 48 cases are believed to have been reported, but did not appear in the SLED database. When contacted, some coroners said SLED had investigated the deaths and the coroners did not report the data because they believed the agency would already have the information.
The total number also includes some gaps in its criteria, such as children killed in collisions while their parent or guardian was driving under the influence.
“We found that data provided by DSS to the General Assembly and the public regarding child maltreatment deaths, particularly those with prior DSS involvement, is not reliable and should not be used as a measure of agency performance,” the audit stated.
The audit also examined a 2011 policy that began referred 23,000 children to community prevention services. These were cases that might not have otherwise been investigated because they were initially viewed as a low to moderate risk for abuse. That change resulted in fewer families being screened out, but also led to a decrease in the number of abuse investigations and findings.
The audit also found the number of children included in child abuse and neglect investigations fell by 34 percent from 2010 to 2013, while the number of reports finding possible abuse fell by 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of children who became victims of abuse and neglect after the agency either “screened out” their cases or referred them to community services more than doubled from 1,173 to 2,508 during that same period.
The audit also found DSS does not require new caseworkers to have college degrees in social work or a behavioral science, nor does it require previous relevant experience. The department also has “unclear policies” regarding training and certification for its caseworkers once they have been hired. It also does not maintain central records that document whether caseworkers have been trained and certified.
The audit also found county child welfare employees had much lower salaries compared to their counterparts in other agencies or the private sector. The LAC calculated that DSS had a 65 percent turnover among its caseworkers from 2011 to 2013 and lost 58 percent of its county directors from 2011 to 2014.
“High turnover of county staff reduces the average level of experience, increasing the probability of mistakes,” the report states.
The audit also recommended that DSS handle all incoming reports of possible child neglect or abuse in either a central or regional office. Currently, each of the 46 county offices handle reports in their own jurisdictions, leading to inconsistencies in which cases are investigated, screened out, or considered a lower risk and referred to community-based prevention services.
In her response to the audit, DSS Acting Director Amber Gillum admitted, “challenges currently exist for (DSS’s) child welfare services and we share the sense of urgency expressed by so many to solve them.”
Gillum noted the agency has requested 221 additional employees and seeking a higher starting salary for its employees. She also said DSS was moving towards a regional intake system.