Originally published: Sunday, March 29, 2009
Children have died in homes where parents were abusing drugs because the agency that is supposed to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents failed them, outraged childsafety advocates say.
At least five children have died and others are in danger unless the Department of Social Services removes children more quickly from homes where parents have drug abuse problems, according to the state’s Child Fatalities Review Committee. Caseworkers also must assure homes are safe before returning children to them, the committee said.
DSS has not acted on years of committee recommendations to change what the panel views as drug tolerance by agency leaders and decisions by caseworkers that put more children at risk.
"It’s not that they don’t care," said Clay Nichols, a Richland County forensic pathologist who chairs the 16-member committee, an arm of the State Law Enforcement Division. "The problem is there are still lapses in judgment or common sense."
The committee is charged by law with analyzing child deaths and suggesting ways to prevent them. Its criticism of DSS raises serious questions about the state’s role in keeping children safe and comes in the wake of a Richland County case last month in which a toddler tested positive for cocaine after police removed her and her infant brother from a marijuana smoke-filled motel room.
DSS director Kathleen Hayes said last week she was briefed by DSS staff after The State newspaper asked about the five deaths that occurred between 2005 and 2007 and were cited by the committee as examples of the problem.
"I was deeply disturbed by what I learned," Hayes said in a statement. "I want to know whether children were left at risk as a result of poor decisions on our part."
Hayes said she did not know of the committee’s frustration.
But according to records, the committee raised the issue of caseworkers’ tolerance of parents’ drug use 13 times during the past two years and the panel met with Hayes’ chief of staff in May 2008 after DSS had not changed its practices.
Also, a July 2008 letter from a pediatrician on the committee asked the agency to require proof when parents complete drug treatment. The letter was copied to Hayes.
Laura Hudson, a victims’ advocate who has been on the committee a decade, said its recommendations, mandated by law, often gather dust.
"Like any advisory committee, there’s nothing in the law that says they have to take our advice," Hudson said.
Gov. Mark Sanford appoints the director of DSS, a Cabinet agency.
"We’re incredibly concerned by what we’ve learned so far about these cases," his spokesman, Joel Sawyer, said Friday. "If a child is endangered in their home setting, whatever the reason, they should be removed, period.
"Our question," Sawyer said, "is whether these issues are systemic or if they’re cases of individuals not doing their jobs." If a DSS employee failed a child , he or she should be disciplined to send a message, Sawyer said.
The five cases cited by the committee involve children - from newborns to a troubled teenager - who died while caseworkers should have known they or their siblings were at great risk, committee members said in interviews.
One case involved two Spartanburg County toddlers left at home with a mother caseworkers considered unfit. In another, three Greenwood County preschoolers remained at home after deputies investigating the death of a 7-month-old sibling found marijuana and a scale, an indicator of drug dealing.
Drugs impair parents the way alcohol impairs drivers - it worsens judgment and shifts attention from where it should be, said SLED Capt. Patsy Lightle, who oversees child death investigations for the committee. "You could call it parenting under the influence," she said.
DSS is a $1.2 billion agency that has been cut $229 million this year but still must serve the state’s neediest through welfare, food stamps and child -support payments. Its 4,000 employees include day-care regulators and caseworkers hired to protect children and vulnerable adults.
DSS’s Hayes said her preliminary assessment of the agency’s conduct in the five cases shows policies sometimes were not followed or caseworkers did not move quickly enough.
Some of the caseworkers no longer are employed by DSS, and one no longer works with children . But Hayes said she does not know whether that reflects disciplinary actions.
Hayes is conducting a closer examination of the cases and expects to release findings by the end of this week. She then wants to meet with the committee.
Hayes said her cash-strapped and overworked agency has improved training and is working on policy changes to better guide caseworkers who deal with drugs in families.
Richland County’s Nichols, the committee chair, said policies do not supplant well-trained caseworkers who make good decisions at crucial times in children ’s lives.
"They rely too much on policy .æ.æ. so - by the book," the physician said. "If there is no policy, then they use their own judgment, with sometimes catastrophic results."
Last spring, committee members and SLED agents who work with child deaths called a meeting with Hayes’ top aide and the agency’s assistant director of child protective services after being shocked by remarks a senior DSS staffer made during a April 2008 case review session.
Pamela Rice, one of two child protective services supervisors at DSS headquarters, told the committee, "She has known people who smoke (marijuana) and other drugs that can still take care of their children ," according to minutes of the meeting obtained under open-records laws.
Also, Rice, a 20-year DSS veteran, asked committee members whether "crack cocaine (is) a drug that is safe to use around children ."
Rice issued a statement last week calling her comments a misunderstanding. She said she would have asked for a correction had she seen the minutes sooner.
She recognizes the threat of marijuana to children , that it can be a gateway drug or indicate deeper family troubles, her statement said. "I told my supervisor how much I regretted the manner in which I had expressed my thoughts," she wrote. She was not made available for an interview.
After her comments to the committee, her supervisor directed Rice into specialized training on drug and alcohol abuse to help her provide more appropriate guidance to child -welfare caseworkers, according to Rice’s statement.
A year later, committee members say the agency has not changed.
SLED’s Lightle said the panel’s intent in pressing drug cases is to make children safer.
" Children don’t just die," Lightle said. "What this is all about is reducing risk. We hope and pray it will reduce the number of child deaths."