Scoppe: ‘We can’t not start over’ on DSS

Associate EditorMay 1, 2014 

IN MY THURSDAY column, I asked you to make several assumptions in favor of DSS Director Lillian Koller. Today I want to explain why I think one of those assumptions is bad and another is exaggerated.

The bad assumption is that Sen. Joel Lourie is shilling for his best friend, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Vincent Sheheen, when he attacks Gov. Nikki Haley’s DSS director. The exaggerated assumption is that Sen. Katrina Shealy has a warped perception of the problem because, as a new senator, she has no basis for comparison. Clearly, Sen. Shealy is not trying to undermine Gov. Haley, a fellow Lexington County Republican without whose enthusiastic support she would not have been elected, and the fact that she and Sen. Lourie are speaking with practically one voice these days makes the idea that this is about partisan politics a lot more difficult to swallow.

Sen. Lourie, whose legislative career has been defined by work on difficult and non-glamorous problems of public health and safety and child welfare, dates his concern about DSS to last summer. He was trying to dispose of a too-large stack of mail when his eyes stopped on the words “DSS policies are causing children’s deaths in my county.” The letter was to the Richland County legislative delegation from Richland County CASA Executive Director Paige Greene.

Around that same time, Sen. Shealy was making inquiries after hearing from a Charleston woman whose great-grandchild was killed when DSS officials didn’t remove him from his home, despite her pleas. “When people heard we got involved in that, we opened up a little DSS office over in the Gressette (Senate office) building,” she told me.

Sens. Lourie and Shealy and Ms. Greene met recently with our editorial board. They didn’t make any new allegations; rather, they answered our questions as we tried to understand what they think is wrong at an agency that is assigned the unimaginably difficult task of protecting children from parents who are either unable or unwilling to take care of them. An agency where the number of deaths has not spiked — and by some counts has gone down.

Sen. Shealy received an email during our meeting about a problem involving a child DSS is supposed to be protecting. “I get these every hour,” she says. She also receives three or four letters a day in the mail from people who are worried that children aren’t being protected from their parents or guardians, and from DSS caseworkers who report unfathomable case loads and unrealistic demands and a work environment that is causing mental and physical health problems.

“It has never been like this,” says Ms. Greene, who worked at DSS for 20 years before moving a dozen years ago to the guardian ad litem program, which advocates in court for abused and neglected children.

Sen. Shealy recalls how Ms. Koller said eight employees were no longer with the agency as a result of one botched case, which sounds reassuring until you listen to her take on it: “You can’t keep firing people at the bottom, because there aren’t enough people at the bottom.” At some point, the senator says, people at the bottom are so overworked that their failures are not their fault, but the fault of the person who didn’t assign enough people to do the job. Her diagnosis of the problem: poor leadership, low morale and not enough resources, because not enough resources have been requested.

Ms. Koller disputes the idea that she has not assigned enough case workers, or that caseloads are as bad as the senators say (they cite offices where the average caseload is more than 50 families per employee), and points to cases when judges wouldn’t let her agency take action. But even her recent announcement that she has asked for 50 additional caseworker positions annoys the senators, who insist she should have done that long ago.

I ask if the employee complaints couldn’t just reflect employees who were used to doing things their way and don’t like the fact that new management came in and changed things. “You always get pushback when you make changes,” Sen. Shealy says. “But how long has she been there?” (The answer is three years.)

“Change can be good,” Sen. Lourie says. “But we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Sen. Shealy continues: “A lot of people balked at (DHEC Director) Catherine Templeton, but it’s smoothed out there. It hasn’t smoothed out here. It’s getting worse.”

Sen. Lourie reminds me that while he has sometimes voted against confirming gubernatorial appointments, including Ms. Templeton, he believes that once an appointment is confirmed, the governor should have wide latitude to decide how long that person stays. “In 16 years as a legislator, I’ve never sat before you and said I believe we have to have a change in an agency,” he says. “But I’ve never heard the sirens going off like this has been in the past few months. How many more children have got to die? How many more statutes have got to be broken?”

He has asked his friend Sen. Sheheen to stop talking about DSS, he says; he and Sen. Shealy both speak at length about how counter-productive that has been, about how framing the problem in political terms threatens to undermine their efforts to fix the problems. Unfortunately, they’re right. Sen. Sheheen really should stop talking about this.

Sen. Shealy thinks the agency needs to be broken apart, with one part handling food stamps and other financial programs and another concentrating on protecting children from harm; at the least, Sen. Lourie says, it’s overdue for the sort of top-to-bottom legislative review that soon will be required of all agencies under the restructuring law that Sen. Sheheen and Gov. Haley finally got passed this year.

“Someone asked me, ‘Do you think getting rid of Lillian Koller is going to take care of this problem?’ ” Mr. Lourie says. “Absolutely not. It’s just the beginning.”

Ms. Shealy nods in agreement. Then she adds: “We can’t not start over.”

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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