STATE HOUSE: Senate DSS oversight panel questions high turnover among county chiefs

jself@thestate.comJanuary 22, 2014 

S.C. Senate Debates Budget

Senator Joel Lourie (D), Richland County

BRETT FLASHNICK — SPECIAL TO THE STATE

A Senate panel tasked with reviewing the S.C. Department of Social Services said some of the agency's accomplishments are commendable, but questioned why, in three years, there was turnover in about half of the agency's 46 county director positions.

The statistic came from Jessica Hanak-Coulter, deputy director of human services with Social Services, who testified Wednesday before the Senate panel.

The panel also heard from the captain of the SLED Special Victims Unit, which investigates child fatalities, and the director of a nonprofit that partners with Social Services to assist families.

"It's shocking that half of our county directors are no longer in their positions," said Sen. Joel Lourie, a Richland Democrat who pushed for the state agency's review. "I want to know more about that. Anytime you get rapid turnover in an area as important as child protection, it does raise a red flag as to why that is the case. Is too much pressure being brought to bear? Why would all these directors be turning over so quickly?"

Hanak-Coulter said she would find out for the panel how many of those county directors, who report directly to her, were fired and how many changed jobs.

Hanak-Coulter spoke in place of DSS Director Lillian Koller. Hanak-Coulter said Koller could not make it because a doctor limited her activity since she suffered a stroke in December.

Koller, who is back working in the office, later released a statement: “We are dedicated to providing the best and most responsive care for children and families across South Carolina and welcome any legislative oversight and input from the community to help achieve these goals. In an effort to make this process as transparent as possible, while still protecting the privacy and rights of the victims, we look forward to working with the General Assembly to reform any laws currently preventing a more complete and appropriate disclosure of the facts.”

The panel on Wednesday wanted to hear the department's response to testimony given last week by parents and grandparents who had dealt with Social Services.

But Hanak-Coulter said the agency is bound by state law not to discuss some cases. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said a staff attorney told him the same, but added that the panel wants to find a way to hear testimony about some of the cases Social Services workers and others are sharing with the lawmakers.

Lourie and Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said the hearings were about finding ways to improve the delivery of social services.

Hanak-Coulter shared with the panel some changes the state agency has made in the two years to increase the delivery of services to families in need by 148 percent.

Before January 2012, Hanak-Coulter said, Social Services had two possible responses to an allegation of abuse or neglect: the family was investigated, or they received no services. The agency would provide no services if the case did not "rise to the level of abuse and neglect" as defined by state law, she said.

Since then, Social Services has worked with community partners to provide assistance to those families that did not rise to the level of abuse or neglect defined by state law.

After the new approach, the percentage of cases resulting in no action dropped to 18 percent in 2013, from 37 percent in 2011, he reported.

Hanak-Coulter also said 1,798 children have been adopted through Social Services since 2009.

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