COLUMBIA — State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, called for the chief of the Department of Social Services to step down Wednesday after hearing testimony alleging fear and intimidation at the state agency and concerns from coroners overseeing child-death investigations.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the expected Democratic candidate for governor, also called for DSS director Lillian Koller's removal.
"Hearing the testimony about children dying & problems at DSS, we need accountability. Its time for (Republican Gov. Nikki Haley) to fire Director Koller," Sheheen tweeted.
Later, Sheheen told The State, "We have seen a culture of incompetence and a failure of leadership. I would have fired her months and months ago if I was governor."
Lourie's statement came toward the end of the panel's two-hour hearing Wednesday, tasked with investigating complaints about the agency.
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.
Gov. Nikki Haley's spokesman Doug Mayer touted the agency's statistics under Koller's leadership:
(C)hild deaths have decreased 25 percent, adoptions have increased 11 percent, and we have successfully moved over 20,000 people from welfare to work. Governor Haley has and will continue to support her efforts to protect and better the lives of South Carolina families and children," Mayer said.
But Wednesday, Lourie said he would like the panel to write a letter to the state Law Enforcement Division or to the S.C. Inspector General asking for an investigation into the agency.
The S.C. Legislative Audit Council currently is reviewing the agency at the General Assembly's request.
Lourie also questioned the agency's director's excuse for not attending Wednesday's meeting after the panel requested that she testify.
"I think she's trying to run the clock out. I think it's time she leave the agency," Lourie said of Koller.
Koller suffered a stroke in December. Though back at work, Koller told the Senate panel that she must get clearance from a doctor before testifying. The panel's chairman, Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said that Koller said that could happen in late April or May.
Koller's deputy director, Jessica Hanak-Coulter, later said in a meeting with media that the agency would welcome a review from the Inspector General.
The panel heard from Richland and Charleston county coroners Gary Watts and Rae Wooten. Both cited cases where investigations into child deaths revealed troublesome patterns of abuse and questions about how DSS handled the cases, they said.
One of the cases was of a 4-year-old Richland County boy who was killed last summer. His parents have been charged in a pending court case. The boy's DSS case history, Watts said, showed that DSS had 15 reports on file for the family.
The autopsy, Watts said, revealed that the child repeatedly had been abused over time.
The child "suffered some mental deficiencies and had been placed in foster care at one point in time and had returned back to the family," Watts said. "For that child to remain in that situation and to continually suffer abuse is inexcusable."
Former DSS deputy director Linda Martin, who was fired last year after being with the agency for more than 30 years, also testified. She said the agency was more focused on numbers than the care of children in the state.
Wooten criticized the agency's transparency in releasing DSS records for child-death investigations.
Hanak-Coulter said by state law, DSS cannot release records about cases that are "unfounded" -- meaning no further action on the agency's part is deemed necessary.
But Wooten said cases deemed "unfounded" also should be included in documents released for child-death investigations because the decision not to advance a case might not be justified, she said.
Ex-Richland County DSS director Allen Carter said he retired early for similar reasons.
"We do intend to hear from the director of the agency. Just because she's not here today, doesn't mean she's getting a pass not to be here. We've made that abundantly clear," said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken.
Young said changes in leadership, if they happen at some point, will not change other problems raised at the hearing about the laws limiting what information about DSS cases available to coroners conducting death investigations. Those issues could be addressed through legislation, he said.