Sheheen: DSS needs more, better trained case workers and whistle-blower protections

Posted by JAMIE SELF on April 15, 2014 

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

— State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Democratic candidate for governor, will announce Tuesday a series of proposals aimed at improving the state's embattled child-welfare agency, according to his campaign.

Sheheen's plan includes pushing for more state money for the Department of Social Services in the state budget, which now resides in the Senate. If elected governor, Sheheen also would ask for an agency-wide audit of Social Services.

One of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's Cabinet agencies, Social Services has come under fire in recent months following questions from child-welfare advocates, former Social Services employees, coroners and others about whether the agency has ignored cases of abuse and neglect leading, in some cases, to children dying. Lawmakers are awaiting the outcome of a S.C. Legislative Audit Council review of the agency.

A bi-partisan Senate panel has been conducting hearings on the agency this year, but Social Services director Lillian Koller has not testified yet. Koller had a stroke in December and has been under doctor's orders not to testify until her health improves.

Koller is expected to testify Wednesday.

Haley's office has defended Social Services, saying under Koller's leadership, the agency has improved.

“Governor Haley appointed Lillian Koller from Hawaii, where she had just been named Public Official of the Year," said Doug Mayer, the governor's spokesman. "Since then, South Carolina has seen a rise in adoptions by 11 percent and a decline in child fatalities by 25 percent. She is committed every day to improving the lives of our children.”

In response to Sheheen's plan for Social Services on Tuesday, Haley's campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey called Sheheen a hypocrite for "talking about family welfare issues" when he previously, as a defense attorney, defended clients accused of criminal domestic violence and other crimes.

After hearing testimony about children in the Social Services system who had repeatedly been abused and later died, Sheheen last month called for Haley to fire Koller.

Sheheen, according to his campaign, wants to double the size of the S.C. Law Enforcement Division Special Victims Unit, improve and increase training for Social Services staff in identifying cases of abuse, and expand programs for foster children, including mentoring for children aging out of foster care and transitional housing for young adults.

Sheheen also plans to introduce a bill that would create whistle-blower protections for employees of the Department of Social Services who report problems within the agency.

Legislation not already introduced likely will need widespread support to have a chance of passing.

All bills die in June at the end of the General Assembly's legislative session. Bills that have not moved from one chamber to the other by May 1 are unlikely to pass. The S.C. House has taken off until April 29. The Senate also is taking off Thursday through next week.

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