Columbia, SC — THE TWO-month-old had been hospitalized after being shaken and slammed onto a surface so hard that he suffered permanent brain damage, but the Sumter County Department of Social Services sent him back home. Six days later, he was brought back to the hospital with a leg broken. He would hang on for a few months before he died.
The public was outraged. And Travis Caudle became a poster child for reform.
Within months, the chairman of the board that oversaw the state DSS had resigned and the state director had announced his retirement. Within a year, the Legislature had dissolved the board, subsumed the 46 autonomous county Social Services offices into the state agency and put the whole operation under the Budget and Control Board, until recently lawmakers’ go-to-agency to fix problems they don’t know how to fix. This would be a test case for the governor’s proposal to put agencies under his control, and two years later, lawmakers also did that, to a significant, though insufficient, degree.
DSS’ culpability in Travis Caudle’s 1991 death was exponentially more clear-cut than in any of the child deaths a Senate panel heard about last month. And thank goodness for that.
But that does not mean all is well at the state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect. When coroners testify that the agency has looked the other way and as a result children have died, that demands our attention.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten walked a special Senate subcommittee through investigations into child deaths that they said revealed troublesome patterns of abuse and questions about how DSS handled the cases. Up until that point, it had not been precisely clear what the subcommittee was, or should be, looking into.
Mr. Watts told of a 4-year-old Richland County boy who was killed last summer after DSS received 15 complaints about the family. The autopsy revealed that the child had been abused repeatedly over time and suffered mental deficiencies; his parents have been charged in his death. Mr. Watts said the child had been placed in foster care but then returned to the family and that “For that child to remain in that situation and to continually suffer abuse is inexcusable.”
Ms. Wooten told of a 2-year-old who died from blunt-force trauma to his abdomen even after his great-grandmother had reported numerous bruises and marks, including a fractured wrist and leg, over the boy’s short life.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s office says DSS is improving: The number of children who died while involved in Social Services dropped to 41 last year from 73 in 2009. And that’s encouraging. (The governor’s office also points to other DSS numbers that are impressive but that have nothing to do with the agency’s most important job: protecting children.)
But Ms. Wooten testified that she has seen more “glaring” cases lately, in which the families of children killed had a history of abuse. Cases that she said should have raised “red flags.” Much like Travis Caudle’s case.
When a child the state has under its watch dies, we can assume one of three things:
• It was one of those cases that no one could have predicted and no one could have prevented, even if everyone did everything right.
The law did not allow social workers to intervene the way they needed to.
• Officials did not do their jobs.
In the first instance, there’s nothing for us to do except prosecute the abusers and mourn the child’s death.
But when the law sets too high a standard for intervention, we need to change the law, particularly if it’s a recurrent problem, and DSS officials need to be leading the charge for change.
And when officials fail to do their jobs, those responsible need to be held accountable. If front-line workers are hindered from doing their jobs, the accountability needs to reach higher.
Travis Caudle’s case led to the overhaul of our state’s entire child-protective system and helped pave the way for the biggest government restructuring in our state’s history. Today’s cases have prompted senators to call for the agency director to resign or be fired.
I have no idea whether DSS Director Lillian Koller needs to go; I hope we will have a better feel for that after she testifies before the Senate panel later this month. (She has sent underlings to testify in her place thus far, citing doctors’ orders after a stroke in December.)
What I do know is that it’s unbelievably difficult for an agency such as DSS to get the balance just right: Even if it makes all the right calls and the law is right, there will be times when the evidence simply did not meet the legal standard necessary to do more. If the agency isn’t aggressive enough about taking children out of dangerous homes, and kids die, everyone is outraged, and justifiably so. If it is too aggressive about removing children, people demand that it stop separating families.
But I also know that the Department of Social Services and the governor have been fixated on reducing the number of kids in foster care — which is a wonderful, wonderful goal, and a wonderful thing to do … so long as it’s done by healing the family or placing the children in good adoptable homes.
It’s an unforgiveable thing to do if it is accomplished by knowingly returning children to dangerous situations, or by pretending not to realize that’s what you’re doing.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.