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Column: DSS claims it’s ‘making progress’

Posted: April 12, 2018 3:41 p.m.
Updated: April 13, 2018 1:00 a.m.

When we published my two-part “Orphaned and homeless” in-depth look at a teenager named “J.M.” and how a jury found the S.C. Department of Social Services (DSS) negligent and awarded J.M. $150,000 in damages, we printed the agency’s only response for comment at the end of both parts:

“(DSS is) carefully reviewing the outcome of the trial in Kershaw County and considering its appellate options. Regardless of the next steps taken in this particular case, the department is committed to serving vulnerable children and adults with courage, compassion and competence.”

It seemed like far too little a response to such a devastating story, especially since it seemed almost word-for-word like the response DSS provided for last summer’s story of a $250,000 award to a Kershaw County couple, also for negligence.

In a massive bit of coincidence, DSS happened to issue a press release last Friday afternoon after the first part of “Orphaned and homeless” appeared.

The press release’s headline was “DSS making progress in improving child welfare system; More work is needed to best serve the increasing number of children in care.”

The press release claims that DSS is continuing to change its culture and operations “to improve the experience and outcomes for children in foster care ... according to a federal court monitoring report evaluating” its operations.

The federal monitoring is the result of a settlement in Michelle H., et. al., vs. Nikki Haley and Susan Alford. Haley, of course, is South Carolina’s former governor; Alford is DSS’s director. According to Children’s Rights, the nonprofit organization that brought the suit on Michelle H.’s behalf, the settlement, reached in October 2016, “requires dramatic changes for South Carolina’s foster care system -- which for years has been troubled by a shortage of foster homes, excessive caseworker loads, and a failure to provide basic health care to kids.”

Michelle H. was 16 at the time the suit was filed. The group claimed that “despite having severe hearing loss in one ear when she entered care at the age of 8, the state has yet to provide Michelle with medical treatment for her condition.” The group went on to note that Michelle had been moved through 12 different placements -- foster homes and group care facilities that were deemed “abusive” and “restrictive,” respectively.

With two court-appointed monitors to oversee the agency’s progress, DSS was charged with improving foster care workloads; worker-child visitation; the investigation process into referrals; placements, including group homes, emergency and sibling placements; what happens to youth under DSS care who are exiting the juvenile justice system; therapeutic care placements; family visitation; and healthcare.

The settlement allowed DSS to come up with the plans, but they did have to be approved by the monitors.

In the press release, DSS said the monitors reported that DSS has ensured that foster children visited with their siblings at higher rates than before; there have been improvements in the decision-making process for screening abuse and neglect cases, including which cases needed further investigation; and that efforts to reduce the number of young children in congregant (group) care settings has been “very successful.”

However, DSS admitted in the press release that -- as mentioned in the monitors’ report -- caseloads are still higher than acceptable standards, which it claims are “driven by the increasing number of children coming into care.” One of the things DSS did in 2017 was to implement a statewide call center for abuse and neglect referrals with intake workers “specifically trained for that work, as opposed to relying on county caseworkers.”

DSS said it is also working to recruit more foster families, and is working with various groups to educate more people about the need to “keep children closer to their home communities.” The agency also said it is working with national experts to improve data collection and “promote increased accountability and transparency.”

To be fair, and despite the fact that the same caseworker was at the heart of both DSS cases I’ve written about during the past year, I don’t think DSS is staffed by evil, uncaring people.

As one person commenting on Facebook about “J.M.’s” case said Tuesday, it’s not that DSS needs to be “cleaned out,” but that the state needs to be willing to actually pay caseworkers what they’re worth and hire about double the number who are currently working so they can keep up with cases.

If legislators are going to say children are the state’s priority, then they have to make sure all of them are cared for properly. That takes money -- and the political bravery -- to have DSS staffed and funded at the levels necessary to do so.

Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if we continue to hear about cases like J.M.’s.

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