DSS criticized for failing to protect children

ashain@thestate.comJanuary 15, 2014 

TRACY GLANTZ

Kelly Heidt said the S.C. Department of Social Services took her 5-year-old granddaughter into custody after the child’s father, a Marine, was accused of molesting her, based on an anonymous tip.

The father was cleared a month later but not until after the child was placed in a foster home. In the interim, Social Services refused the grandparents’ request to care for the girl, Heidt said.

“How can DSS say it loves and cares for kids when they do this?” Heidt told state senators examining the state’s social agency on Wednesday. “They’re heartless, inhumane, horrible people. It’s a crime what they’ve done.”

Senators apologized.

“What you described is like a scene out of a horror (movie),” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland.

The oversight hearings started last year after Lourie wanted an examination of three Richland County abuse-related deaths of children involved with Social Services in some way.

In 2013, 58 children who were involved with Social Services died statewide, down from 73 four years earlier. But DSS-related cases did not fall as fast as all child deaths in South Carolina during that period, according to data provided by the S.C. Crime Victims Council.

Witnesses during a three-hour hearing told senators about problems Social Services has investigating cases and regulating foster-care providers.

“Maybe we need to do some revamping of the agency,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who has received complaints about the agency.

Social Services leaders are scheduled to testify at another hearing next week, though it is unclear if director Lillian Koller will appear after suffering an undisclosed medical issue last month. “DSS ... is fighting to continue the positive downward trend of child fatalities we have seen over the past three years,” the agency said in a statement.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Center, which advocates for low-income South Carolinians, said she was concerned the number of cases investigated by the agency’s Child Protective Services unit dropped by 1,000 between 2011 and 2012.

After reviewing initial abuse complaints, Social Services can refer less severe cases to volunteer community organizations. Berkowitz said too many cases are being outsourced when there are “serious problems.”

Paige Greene, executive director of a Richland County agency that protects the interests of children in the legal system, said she has seen cases involving drug-addicted parents sent to community groups by Social Services because case workers are not looking closely enough.

“There’s pressure to not have children in foster care and return children before the time is appropriate” Berkowitz said.

Witnesses also complained some Social Services case workers abuse their power.

Heidt, whose granddaughter was taken by DSS in what she calls a “kidnapping,” said she could not get help after reaching out to public officials. “If we didn’t have the money (to hire a private attorney), she’d still be in the system right now.”

Heidt reached out to Shealy while her granddaughter was in state care. The senator, an ally of Gov. Nikki Haley who chose Koller to head DSS, said she spoke to the director and other agency leaders.

“I tried to get them to fix that problem,” Shealy said. “They wouldn’t help me. ... They kept saying, ‘We’re working on it.’ ”

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