Bolton: Government leaders should just tell us when things go awry

June 8, 2014 

— LILLIAN KOLLER resigned as director of the Department of Social Services last week, saying she no longer wanted to be a “distraction” at the agency at the center of controversy following high-profile child deaths.

I wish she had been part of the solution. Why didn’t she just tell us what was going on at DSS so we could get it fixed?

This is a public agency funded and supported by the people of South Carolina. We collectively agree to be taxed to help fund DSS and empower it to act in the best interest of children in need.

While we want every service to hum along, we know DSS is a tough agency to run. Even in the best circumstances, children are going to be hurt; some are going to die. But we want to minimize tragedy; that’s something we can’t do if we don’t know what the problems are.

I don’t know about you, but if there’s a breakdown in my life — whether it’s my body, my car or my home AC unit — I want those I trust and pay to keep me upright, riding and comfortable to tell it to me straight: How much damage was done, how can it be fixed, and what’s it going to cost? It’s up to me to be a big boy about it and make decisions about how to go forward.

For some reason, government leaders who enjoy the public trust, here in South Carolina and across our nation — can you say Department of Veterans Affairs? — have decided it’s better to play keep-away rather than level with citizens.

But how are things going to get better if they don’t just tell us?

What’s happening at DSS is a classic example.

First, let me be clear: The agency does get some things right; it helps lots of kids and families. I hear success stories all the time.

But there are some troubling problems at the agency that have endangered children and led to their deaths.

While it’s great that a Senate committee is holding hearings to explore problems at DSS, the people who lead the agency and work there every day already know what’s going on.

Whether the problems began under her watch or were vestiges of directors past, it was Ms. Koller’s job to tell the people of South Carolina that the system was broken, give the details and then outline what it would take to fix it.

To the degree that she was a distraction, it was because there was a general feeling that her agency wasn’t leveling with lawmakers and the public.

Sens. Joel Lourie and Katrina Shealy, who have been working hard on this problem, said accurate statistics about the agency have not been forthcoming.

“We've been asking questions and getting different answers every time,” Ms. Shealy said. “I hope that people feel like they can be honest and not threatened. I hope they can come forward and do things that will make the agency better.”

Isn’t that what this is really all about, making DSS better able to keep children on this side of the grave?

But throughout this ordeal, Ms. Koller and Gov. Haley mostly have painted a picture of a DSS on the upswing.

After her resignation, Ms. Koller wrote in a statement that her presence was “making it more difficult for DSS to continue the measurable improvements made to the Agency during my tenure that have improved the lives of the citizens we serve.” (I added the emphasis.)

In a statement of her own, Gov. Haley said that under Ms. Koller, “DSS closed a $28 million deficit, moved more than 20,000 South Carolinians from welfare-to-work, and has done wonders to improve our foster care system, placing more South Carolina children in stable, healthy families.”

But what of the child deaths? What of the overworked employees? What of the various other issues that are hampering this agency’s effectiveness?

I fear that the highly partisan and divisive political landscape that grips our nation plays a role in government leaders concealing the truth about troubled agencies. A governor or a president, particularly one seeking re-election, isn’t going to give opponents campaign fodder. No doubt, administrators and directors fear losing their jobs, and in some instances they probably should.

It’s said that the cover up is worse than the crime. Many times, that’s true. But in critical agencies such as DSS or Veterans Affairs, it’s not just a matter of legalities: The cover up allows dangers to grow even more dire.

We’ve had veterans who put their lives on the line fighting for our country only to die waiting for medical care. Veterans Affairs, for whatever reason, concealed how bad things were. And they got worse. Why not level with the American people and tell us what needs to be done to fix the problem? Our elected leaders would then have to act or face voters’ wrath.

Sen. Lourie put it in perspective, when he said of DSS: “Bring us the facts however bad they may be.”

In other words, just tell us. Then it’s our collective job to make the fix.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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