A children’s rights group says South Carolina has taken some positive steps in improving its child welfare system, but that the state remains well behind where it needs to be.
An independent court monitor released its report Wednesday into how well the state Department of Social Services (DSS) is following a settlement last year with the organization Children’s Rights. The group had sued DSS in 2015 on behalf of 3,400 children in state custody. As part of the deal, DSS pledged to change some of its policies and devote more funding towards foster care.
The court monitors say DSS did make some improvements, including no longer placing children in offices or hotel rooms while waiting for space in foster homes. The report also said the agency is doing more face-to-face visits between caseworkers and foster children and is reducing the number of young children sent to group homes.
But the report noted overburdened caseworkers who take on too many cases and often incorrectly “screen out” reports of abuse or maltreatment, as a result.
“We are united in our desire to see progress under the settlement, which means better lives and outcomes for the young people DSS serves,” South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center executive director Sue Berkowitz said. “We are eager to sit down with DSS leadership and talk through these challenges so that we can implement solutions that best support and protect our children.”
The report highlighted what has been a years-long struggle for DSS despite additional state funding: hiring, training and keeping enough caseworkers to stay within the settlement’s maximum limit of children per worker. The report finds the agency would need to hire an additional 670 caseworkers in the next three years to be in compliance with the 15 children per foster care caseworker required by the settlement.
The monitors also found less than half of the decisions not to follow up with reports of maltreated foster children were handled correctly. The report said only 44 percent of decisions to “screen out” maltreatment were appropriate. When reports were investigated, fewer than half of “unfounded” allegations were determined appropriately, it continued.
It also found 30 percent of children entering foster care with siblings were not placed with in a home with any of those siblings. Of those separated from all or some of their siblings, only 47 percent had the required visits with them.
The report covered the first five months of the settlement, from October 2016-March 2017.
DSS Director Susan Alford defended her agency, saying in a written response that massive changes were agreed to and will take time.
“Change of this magnitude doesn’t happen overnight, but we are committed to creating a system that prioritizes the needs of vulnerable children and gives them every opportunity to thrive in a loving, safe family,” Alford said. “We are not about the quick fix. We’re focused on improvements we know will last.”
More than 4,000 children are part of South Carolina’s foster care system.