Originally published: Monday, April 13, 2009
A statewide committee that recommends changes to keep children safer would get the authority to make other agencies investigate if committee members think children are at risk, under a bill filed by a state senator.
The Child Fatalities Review Committee has complained its suggestions go largely unheeded by agencies that deal with children , as well as the governor and the Legislature.
A bill by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, would convert the committee from an advisory body to a panel that could direct other agencies to investigate and report their findings within 45 days.
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"All our best efforts go for naught," committee chairman Clay Nichols said of recommendations sent to child welfare agencies and the State House. "We would like to have a little more influence.
"We’re not trying to take over the agencies," he said. "It would be used very judiciously."
A Senate subcommittee is to discuss the proposal soon, likely during April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The Department of Social Services, named in the bill, currently requires a new allegation to reopen a case, said DSS chief attorney Virginia Williamson.
She said the agency and the Legislature have taken a position that government should pull out of families as soon as practical to allow them to heal and manage their own lives.
"Does society want the state to go back and knock on the door, or does the parent have the right to raise their children in privacy?" Williamson said.
DSS is charged by law with protecting children and families and investigating abuse and neglect complaints. Working with police, it is the primary agency that decides when to remove children from their homes or return them once the home is safe.
The agency has not taken a public position on Hutto’s proposal.
The Orangeburg Democrat said he is optimistic the bill will not run into a roadblock.
Bill supporters acknowledge it is too late in the legislative session for a final vote this year. They hope to build support for next year.
"I can’t imagine why we would not want to empower a review committee to have broad authority," said Hutto, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairman of a subcommittee that could hear public comments on the bill.
His proposal would grant the committee of 16 child welfare experts, which works with the State Law Enforcement Division, the right to tell DSS and "another agency that serves children " to investigate or reopen cases of domestic violence, drug abuse, physical or emotional abuse or neglect.
Committee chairman Nichols, a forensic pathologist, said the panel’s authority would extend to police, coroners, prosecutors and other agencies that deal with child welfare. Seven state agencies have representatives on the panel.
But others who support the change are divided on whether the bill would affect local law enforcement agencies.
S.C. Sheriff’s Association director Jeff Moore said sheriffs likely would agree to open cases at the committee’s request. But, he said, "We’re always reticent to accept something that tells us what to do."
If the change is approved, the committee would be able to order an investigation or reopen a case after it has reviewed the death of a child . Case reviews were the panel’s original responsibility when it was created by law in 1993. It examines about 250 yearly.
If the law is changed as Hutto proposes, the committee would have a year after reviewing a case to order an investigation.
Laura Hudson, a committee member for 10 years, said the panel feels hamstrung by DSS policies that require a new allegation before a caseworker may open another investigation.
An anonymous neighbor with a suspicion could trigger that probe, but the committee cannot, she said.
Hutto and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said lawmakers will be careful not to overextend the committee’s authority.
"I’m not prepared at this point to give such broad authority across the board to reopen cases at will," said Cobb-Hunter, a licensed social worker who has dealt with child welfare issues for more than three decades.
But she said she supports limited powers to reopen some cases.
Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, also active on children ’s issues, said he favors the bill and might even suggest "souping it up" to give the committee broad authority.
Thomas, a senator for 24 years, said he had never heard of the committee and suggested in the future it take its recommendations directly to legislative leaders.
Hutto said current restrictions on the committee are too tight.
"We’re at some point going to have to draw a line," he said of the committee’s power to order investigations. "But this you-can’t-goback-at-all situation makes no sense."