Two of the three members of a state Senate panel investigating South Carolina’s child services agency believe the best option is to split up the agency.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said Monday she will pre-file legislation this week that would abolish the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) and create a new agency to handle child protective services, child abuse investigations, foster families and adoption. Other functions at DSS, including food stamps and other family welfare programs, would be placed under the existing Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
The proposal got bipartisan support after State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he would co-sponsor it. Shealy and Lourie are two of the three senators on a subcommittee that has been investigating child deaths and other problems at DSS for the past year. The panel’s chairman Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, has not yet publicly commented on the idea.
Shealy said DSS leaders have devoted much of their attention to welfare programs, specifically “Welfare to Work” and other plans to reduce reliance on food stamps, at the expense of child protection. She believes instead placing those functions under DHHS (which oversees Medicaid benefits in South Carolina) would allow more focus on child services.
“It’s a huge agency and I think the agency was focused on too many things and not on child protective services,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. She proposed putting child services, daycare regulation, adoption, and other functions into a new Department of Family Protective Services.
Senators have spent this past year looking into the deaths of children who died from abuse or neglect during or after DSS case investigations. Their fact-finding hearings eventually led to then-DSS director Lillian Koller resigning in June. Gov. Nikki Haley has said her office is working to find a replacement, noting she had wanted to wait until after the November 5 elections to begin the search. Shealy said the governor has not yet indicated whether she supports the idea.
Shealy’s legislation would establish education and experience requirements for new child welfare caseworkers at the new agency (although the senator said current employees would not lose their jobs under her proposal). It would also set a maximum caseload for how many families a caseworker could investigate and a minimum response time for suspected abuse and neglect.
“I definitely think it’s going to make a big difference in what they do,” Shealy said. “If we do this, it’s going to narrow their focus. They’ll have more time to spend on what’s important.”
The bill would also replace the individual counties’ child abuse reporting systems with a statewide child abuse hotline. Shealy said this would allow the new DFPS to treat each case uniformly and would make it easier to report child abuse and neglect.
Lourie said he “wholeheartedly” supported Shealy’s proposal. “I look forward to working hard to ensure its passage, so every employee at this agency will be concerned everyday about one thing and one thing only – protecting children,” he said in a statement.