A legislative committee is recommending that South Carolina’s special needs department become a Cabinet agency directly under the governor’s control.
Members of the House Oversight Committee made the recommendation last week in an 11-1 vote after several months looking into the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN). The committee reviewed DDSN after several lawsuits highlighted problems with denied care, abuse and funding cuts at the agency responsible for those with intellectual disabilities, autism or traumatic brain injury.
The proposal — which would change DDSN from a semi-autonomous commission appointed by the governor into one whose director is appointed by the governor — is only a recommendation and will need to be introduced as legislation next year. Supporters say the current model is diffused and the commission struggles to handle abuse complaints at some of its dozens of providers.
“We’re the only state that does it this way,” State Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville. “I think we would be better served as a state and our constituents would be better served by making this a Cabinet agency.”
The vote is only a recommendation that the full legislature could take up next year. But it marks the first time such an idea has gotten some traction in the House, although the Senate considered a similar proposal last year.
DDSN provides services to more than 30,000 people with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum, or brain injuries.
State Rep. Robert Williams, D-Darlington, was the lone “no” vote. He said the new director Mary Poole hired in June should first get a chance to fix the agency. “We’ve just got to assign commissioners who are going to be thoughtful about the process of taking care of their local areas,” he said.
Poole spoke to legislators before last week’s vote. The new director admitted there are issues at DDSN, but asked for time to fix them before such a change happens.
“There are a lot of changes that need to happen in this agency, from structure, to service definitions to funding sources,” Poole said. “So, at this point in time, I would say the structure needs to be independent until it’s all put on the right track.”
DDSN is facing several lawsuits stemming from abuse complaints that victims’ families say were mishandled. A series of reports by the Greenville News found DDSN substantiated less than three percent of the complaints and often failed to follow up with the providers to see the results of those substantiated complaints.