Originally published: Sunday, April 5, 2009
Seven Department of Social Services employees are being disciplined in the deaths of five children in homes troubled by drug abuse, in cases cited by child safety advocates as failures in the child safety net.
DSS director Kathleen Hayes, after reviewing the five cases, also said her agency is moving to better protect other children who are at risk. The agency has launched an overhaul of its practices for dealing with drugs in families and has ratcheted up staff training, she said.
Hayes’ review comes in response to complaints from the Child Fatalities Review Committee, an arm of SLED that investigates child deaths in South Carolina. The cases in contention were identified last week in a State newspaper report. Committee members told the newspaper DSS had failed to act on two years of complaints that caseworkers too often tolerate drug use in troubled families.
DSS is disciplining one supervisor and six caseworkers involved, Hayes said.
Another caseworker has been transferred away from dealing with children , and 13 other child welfare staffers have left the agency in the wake of the deaths, which happened between 2005 and 2007.
DSS declined to identify the employees or former employees.
"I am really disturbed by the inadequacies in these cases," Hayes said Friday after an indepth internal examination of how the agency failed to deal with the troubled families.
"The overwhelming issue in these cases was undervaluing the risk."
The deceased children ranged in age from 26 days to 17 years and died in households where parents or caregivers were involved with drugs or alcohol.
In a 2005 Spartanburg County case, for example, caseworkers did not investigate allegations that the mother allowed friends to use crack cocaine in front of her children . Six months later, the woman’s 7-month-old was asphyxiated after she left him and his toddler sister with a boyfriend who had methamphetamine and other drug charges on his record. He also had been accused of molesting the 3-year-old.
In an Oconee County drowning of a 2-year-old in 2007, parents with extensive criminal records were allowed to keep their four children even though caseworkers knew the parents left them unsupervised and their home at one time lacked running water and utilities.
The committee took its complaints of drug tolerance to DSS leaders last spring and summer and was outraged at being ignored.
"We don’t condone or excuse the use of illegal drugs," Hayes said Friday in defense of the agency. She also said agency leaders also failed to let the committee know of changes in practices that were under way.
With these five families, caseworkers either used poor judgment in determining dangers, did not move quickly enough to protect the children or their siblings or failed to follow proper procedures, Hayes said.
In Laurens County, where two of the cases originated, the DSS office was overloaded with cases and plagued with staff turnover, Hayes said.
The caseworker in one of the questioned cases was handling 55 cases, even though the average workload is about 15, Hayes said. She said an experienced supervisor was transferred there in January.
Committee chairman Clay Nichols, a Richland County forensic pathologist, had called the failures a lack of common sense.
"The majority of DSS cases are handled properly," Hayes said. "We have highly dedicated caseworkers."
A senior member of the committee and a SLED agent who oversees child fatality investigations said they welcome the announced changes.
"I’m pleased with her assessment and quick reaction," victims advocate Laura Hudson said. "These are deaths we’re talking about, not broken ankles.
"People that are not doing their jobs in dealing with children need to be pushing carts at Kmart."
Hudson said she was worried last week when Hayes attended her first meeting of the committee. Afterward, Hudson said, the director seemed more interested in learning how the newspaper obtained access to records of the five cases than to the issues raised by committee members.
"I am mystified by that statement," Hayes said in reaction. "We share their goal of protecting children and that was my message to them."
Capt. Patsy Lightle, head of the special victim’s unit at the State Law Enforcement Division, said she hopes DSS will ensure changes are made.
"Facts are facts," Lightle said. "When the facts show you that you’re wrong, you make it right."
Committee vice chairman Gratin Smith, a Greenwood pediatrician, said he is pleased with the agency’s response. But he said he would like other state leaders to be equally responsive.
"We don’t think the committee has had the response it needs from the governor’s office or even the Legislature."
In the past month, DSS has reached out to other agencies that deal with substance abuse and to national experts for help in upgrading training and policies.
Hayes said the agency on Friday sent notice to all 46 county offices of interim changes in the way drug cases are handled. The new rules take effect Monday and will apply until changes from the national experts are adopted.
Also, specialists from the Children ’s Welfare League of America and the National Center for Substance Abuse and Child Welfare will be in town April 27, Hayes said.
The interim guidelines are in question-and-answer format and streamline the agency’s voluminous policies and procedures manual, said Wilbert Lewis, director of child protective services.
The intent, Hayes wrote in a directive memo, is to "more clearly focus attention on .æ.æ. critical practices" and to eliminate "extraneous instructions."
Still, more needs to be done, Hayes said. "There are things we need to do to connect the dots" in how DSS works with other agencies to protect children .
DSS, though a $1 billion agency, has suffered deep cuts in its budget and is seeking help from private funds.
Casey Family Programs, based in Seattle, provided a grant of $800,000 over four years to team caseworkers with other agencies that deal with troubled families. The intent is to get involved sooner, bring in a neutral facilitator and give families a chance to craft their own plan to keep children from being removed from the home. A pilot program is to be launched this spring in 10 counties that have yet to be selected, said Hayes’ chief of staff, Katie Morgan.
The National Governors Association picked South Carolina and five other states to help train caseworkers in finding ways to safely reduce the number of children placed onto foster care.
A one-year, $50,000 Duke Endowment grant sent 62 DSS employees, S.C. Family Court judges and other child advocates to learn from best practices in other states, including programs in Charlotte.
SLED’s Lightle said Hayes’ changes bode well for child safety in South Carolina.
"I’m thankful on behalf of SLED and the children in this state that she is taking steps to correct the problems."