COLUMBIA, SC – The South Carolina Department of Social Services and Gov. Nikki Haley have agreed to make changes to how the state treats foster children. The changes are in response to a federal class action lawsuit but the lawsuit will continue.
The agreement says DSS will: finish a study on how many cases each caseworker should handle and then, within 180 days, adopt new caseload limits; create a plan within 60 days to keep children age 6 and under out of group homes; and also within 60 days phase-out putting some foster children in hotels, motels, or having them sleep on the floor in county DSS offices when there are no foster homes available.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, is a member of the Senate DSS Oversight Committee that’s been investigating the agency for almost two years. He says all of the changes will better protect children. “I mean it was absolutely horrific, the stories we were hearing,” he says of the culture at DSS a couple of years ago.
“You had this downward spiral, this effect of caseworkers quitting; the caseworkers that stayed were being overwhelmed with the work; they were not necessarily making great decisions, kids were being reunited in families that they had no business being reunited with, and the end result of that was human tragedy,” he says. In some cases, children died after DSS got involved with their families.
During the committee’s investigation of DSS, the Legislative Audit Council released a critical audit of the agency. Then-director Lillian Koller ended up resigning just before the Senate was planning to take a vote of “no confidence” in her leadership. Susan Alford was then appointed to lead the agency.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, another member of the oversight committee, says she’s glad to see the changes coming. “There are still caseworkers in different counties that have over 100 children,” she says. There’s no exact number of recommended cases, but experts say it should be in the 15 to 20 range. “I’m glad to see that we’re taking it seriously and we’re going to move forward,” she says.
Sen. Lourie says, “I think the people of South Carolina need to know that it is my opinion, as someone who has been a very, very vocal critic of how things were, that things are turning around and we’re going to work with them every step of the way to make sure they have what they need to protect these children.”
DSS released a written statement saying, “Upon appointment, Director Alford committed to strengthening the child welfare system in South Carolina. That critical work has already begun by receiving funding to hire 177 additional case workers and 67 caseworker assistants and aggressively recruiting for those positions, increasing salaries of caseworkers, restructuring the child welfare division, streamlining the foster home licensure process, and improving the support structure for existing foster homes. DSS anticipates that the agreed upon provisions of the interim relief agreement will continue this forward momentum, and DSS is hopeful that it can continue to work towards a full resolution of the lawsuit.”