SC senators question vacancies, turnover at Social Services

jself@thestate.comJanuary 22, 2014 

A Senate panel tasked with reviewing the S.C. Department of Social Services questioned Wednesday why about half the agency’s 46 county director positions turned over in three years and more than 140 positions for caseworkers remain unfilled.

Those statistics came from Jessica Hanak-Coulter, the agency’s deputy director of human services, who testified to the panel, formed last year after state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, raised questions about the deaths of S.C. children involved with Social Services in some way. Those deaths — 312 since 2009 — dropped to 41 last year from 73 in 2009.

“It’s shocking that half of our county directors are no longer in their positions,” Lourie said after the hearing. “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.”

The panel wanted to hear the department’s response Wednesday to critical testimony last week about the agency given by parents and grandparents. But Hanak-Coulter said the agency is bound by state law not to discuss some cases.

Hanak-Coulter said the agency has increased services to families in need by 148 percent since 2011. Before January 2012, Social Services responded to tips about abuse or neglect by investigating the family or doing nothing, if the case did not “rise to the level of abuse and neglect” required by law for the agency to get involved, she said.

But since January 2012, Social Services has referred families that normally would receive no help to community organizations. As a result, cases resulting in no action dropped to 18 percent in 2013 from 37 percent in 2011. The national average is 38 percent, she said. She also said 1,798 children have been adopted through Social Services since 2009.

Lourie said the agency’s strides “don’t go unnoticed.”


However, law enforcement and child advocates are concerned some child deaths likely are not reported to SLED for review.

Coroners are required to report to SLED child deaths that are not caused by disease or illness, or those not caused by unavoidable accidents, such as a car wreck. But seven counties reported no child deaths to SLED for review in the past three or more years, said Laura Hudson, a member of the state Child Fatality Advisory Committee that reviews suspicious child deaths.

Lourie said the General Assembly should consider providing more manpower for SLED to investigate child deaths and ensure coroners report child deaths accurately.

Social Services director Lillian Koller did not attend Wednesday’s hearing. Koller’s doctor has limited her activity after she had a stroke in December, Hanak-Coulter said. In a statement, Koller, who is back at work, said Social Services welcomes “legislative oversight” and community input in providing the best care for children.

She added, “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.”


Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.

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