Originally published: Friday, September 11, 2009
The agency assigned to protect South Carolina’s at-risk children has improved in the three years since the state’s official watchdog issued a stinging report, but more work needs to be done, according to an updated review released Thursday.
"They’ve made a lot of progress," Tom Bardin, director of the S.C. Legislative Audit Council, said of the child protective services arm of the Department of Social Services. "It’s so much better than it was three years ago. The 2006 (audit) was a tough report.
"But it still needs to be tightened up," Bardin said of DSS procedures. "You’re dealing with kids. You can’t just take chances. You have to make sure processes are exact."
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DSS director Kathleen Hayes acknowledged the improvements and the challenges ahead.
"DSS knows it has a long way to go to provide the level of services we want for our citizens," Hayes said in a statement. "But we are pleased that many of the key recommendations made by the LAC in 2006 . . . have been implemented or partially implemented during this difficult revenue period in our state."
The agency has lost $105 million since June 2008: $42 million in state budget cuts and a resulting loss of $63 million in matching federal aid, DSS chief of staff Katie Morgan said.
Thursday’s audit review of improvements recommended in 2006 showed that child protection officials carried out five of the auditors’ suggestions and partially carried out three more. Three others were aimed at the administrative arm of the Supreme Court and the Legislature - neither of which made the recommended changes.
DSS also hired a staffer whose job is to monitor and improve its services.
Some of the auditors’ 15 key areas of concern and the progress or lack of it are:
The need for more frequent faceto-face meetings between caseworkers and children who are victims of abuse or neglect.
The percentage improved from 60 percent of children seeing their caseworker every 30 days in 2006 to 91 percent in April of this year.
"If you don’t see the kids, you can’t ensure their well-being," said Bardin, who was appointed LAC’s director in March. Yet, the review issued Thursday said, "DSS still needs to improve."
The need for accountability of how county offices track disciplinary actions against caseworkers.
DSS clarified its policies on disciplinary actions against caseworkers who do not complete their investigations of alleged child abusers within the required 45 to 60 days. But the agency did not establish a policy holding county offices accountable when investigations fall behind schedule.
The need to ensure that the names of people found by caseworkers or the courts to have abused or neglected a child be posted in the state’s central registry in a timely manner has improved. The agency also has hired someone solely to monitor the registry.
"They’ve come a long way," Hardin said.
Before this year, the review found, about 2,800 names had not been posted on the list, which is restricted from public view but available to government agencies and employers.
As of April 2009, the number was down to about 1,300, including those in which the decision is up to a judge.