SC Social Services director says she will not quit

ccope@thestate.comApril 16, 2014 

— After months of state Senate hearings, the head of the embattled S.C. Department of Social Services met with lawmakers investigating her agency Wednesday.

Social Services director Lillian Koller said she will not resign, having suggested ways her agency’s operations could be streamlined to address concerns about repeated reports of abuse and neglect involving children.

“If I thought that my resignation would save the life of even one child, the governor would have my resignation,” Koller said. “So I respectfully decline to resign.”

Senators of both political parties were not satisfied.

“I’m not necessarily convinced with all the answers we got,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, adding lawmakers need to look seriously at whether Koller still should be Social Services director. “We’re at a point now that we have to make a decision.”

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who appointed Koller to head Social Services, issued a statement defending her Cabinet officer.

“Director Koller showed today exactly why the governor appointed her in the first place – she is a committed advocate for South Carolina’s children, and someone who has overseen dramatic improvement in an agency that deals with some of the toughest, most tragic situations in our state,” said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer. “Governor Haley is proud of director Koller, the staff at DSS, and the changes they have made.”

8 left agency after death

Koller told senators that Social Services is looking into regionalizing the process that it uses to screen complaints of child abuse and neglect, ensuring workers do not become complacent to repeated reports.

“You really want to get a fresh set of eyes every time there is a complaint of abuse or neglect,” Koller said.

That could help prevent tragedies like the death Robert Guinyard, a 4-year-old autistic boy who was beaten to death in his Richland County home in July 2013. Robert’s parents have been charged in his death. The case is pending.

In a previous hearing, the Senate oversight committee heard testimony from a Richland County coroner who said Social Services had been notified about alleged abuse in the family several times before the child’s death. An autopsy confirmed a pattern of abuse.

“The system must do more to prevent lives like Robert’s from being lost,” Koller said, adding Social Services immediately investigated the child’s death.

As a result of that inquiry, eight staff members are no longer working at Social Services, Koller said. Some were fired, others quit and one retired, she said.

‘We never got a complaint’

Koller also offered a suggestion to help prevent tragedies like the one that led to the death of 3-month-old Kellie Rynn Martin, who suffocated while being cared for at a home day-care center limited, by state regulation, to caring for no more than six children.

Kellie was found unresponsive in a bassinet at the home day-care center, which was registered with Social Services. Authorities also found 14 children hiding in the basement with the day-care operator’s daughter, another child unattended in the yard and a loaded gun in a room.

The law allows for DSS to do unannounced inspections of licensed facilities, but not of registered facilities. Social Services only can investigate registered day cares, like the one Kellie was in, after it receives a complaint, Koller said. “And we never got a complaint in seven years.”

Three prior complaints – that the facility had too many children – had been made in 2002, 2005 and 2007. After Social Services investigated, the facility corrected the problem and was left alone, Koller said.

Koller suggested legislators change the law so that if a registered child care facility violates state regulations, it would have to close or become licensed, allowing Social Services to do random inspections.

The right person?

While the Senate panel has been hearing from child-welfare advocates, coroners and former Social Services employees for months, Koller had not been able to appear before it because she was recovering from a stroke that she suffered in December.

"I wish, more than you know, that I could have been here before you before today," Koller told senators.

Senators on the panel weren’t satisfied.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who previously has called for Koller to step down, said the discussion went in circles.

"I don’t think she’s the right person to run that agency."

Koller will appear before the panel again within the next few weeks, senators said.

The Associated Press contributed. Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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