Caseworkers at South Carolina's child welfare agency thought they were saving a child's life.
After a mother and her baby tested positive for cocaine in 2012, the state Department of Social Services implemented a safety plan that required the maternal grandmother to supervise contact between the mother and child at all times.
Months later, however, the grandmother and her boyfriend were charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, according to the agency, after the child died from "accidental smothering." According to a summary of the case, the boyfriend placed the child behind him on a loveseat while he slept. Emergency responders and officers reported he smelled of alcohol when they arrived.
The grandmother and boyfriend refused to take drug screens when requested after the death, DSS reported.
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That case is one of 14 child fatalities related to abuse and neglect posted recently on the DSS website as a result of efforts by the agency to increase transparency with the way it handles such cases.
Testimony before a Senate oversight panel earlier this year about two Richland County child deaths sparked criticism of the agency's leadership. Former DSS Director Lillian Koller resigned in June following requests by some lawmakers she step down.
The 14 cases recently posted are the first of the child death reports to be made public by DSS.
The summaries, which exclude names, other identifying information and some details of the cases, offer a glimpse inside the tragedies caseworkers encounter with regularity each year.
Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican who chairs a Senate oversight panel that has spent the year looking at DSS, said he has questions for the agency about the seven cases in which there was prior DSS involvement. He said his panel will likely talk to DSS officials about the reports later this year.
Paige Greene, executive director of Richland County CASA, a guardian ad litem service, said the cases are "heartbreaking" and point to the need to nurture and support caseworkers who must repeatedly face such family nightmares.
"These cases are tragedies, but my heart goes out to the workers," she said.
The cases are all different, with causes of death ranging from physical abuse to drowning to accidental smothering.
Some of the parents have prior DSS involvement. Others do not.
Some cases result in criminal charges. Others do not.
The following are summaries of the reports in which DSS had prior involvement before the child's death:
• In 2009, a mother picked up her 2-year-old child from a relative and took the child to the hospital because the child was behaving "in a peculiar manner."
After the child was transferred to another hospital, a drug screen was given and it was determined the child was experiencing drug withdrawal. According to DSS, the child consumed drugs while at the home of a relative. The child and siblings were temporarily placed with family while the mother underwent parenting education. They were eventually returned.
Almost three years later, in June of 2012, the children were involved in a meth lab explosion, according to the report, and one child died. A caller had alleged the children were neglected. They were dirty, had head lice and often found wandering in the neighborhood, playing in the street and begging for food.
The surviving child was placed with the maternal grandmother, who obtained legal custody, according to the report.
• In June 2010, a mother left two small children in an apartment alone and food cooking on the stove caught fire. DSS implemented a safety plan with the parents and provided a referral to the father for domestic violence batterer's classes.
The family successfully completed treatment goals, according to DSS, and the children remained with the mother.
Two years later, one of the children was killed by a car. A subsequent investigation by DSS found evidence of domestic violence in the home, unsafe and unsanitary conditions and a "substantial risk of physical abuse."
The children were placed in emergency protective custody, the mother was eventually deported and the children returned to the father.
• In July 2008, DSS reported, the father of several children was arrested for criminal domestic violence. The mother was injured in an altercation in which an 11-month-old was caught in the middle. According to DSS, the mother tested positive for marijuana.
The mother and children subsequently moved out of state. They eventually returned.
In August 2012, an 18-month-old child of the mother died and her live-in boyfriend was arrested for homicide.
According to DSS, the child had a large amount of blood in her head, bruises on her neck and arms and blood behind her eyes.
Interviews of the surviving siblings indicated the mother was told by the children her boyfriend was hurting them, according to DSS. The mother tested positive for marijuana.
The mother was offered parenting classes, substance abuse treatment and counseling, random drug testing and family and individual counseling, according to DSS. Custody of the siblings was returned to the mother.
• In July 2008, a 17-year-old in foster care delivered a baby, according to DSS. Because the agency said the new mom could not provide adequate food, clothing or shelter, the new child was placed into a foster home along with the mother. The child was subsequently adopted.
In August 2012, the mother, who had other children, ran the water in a bathtub with her kids and did not turn it off, then left the room, according to DSS. By the time she returned, an 11-month-old was submerged in the water and was unresponsive, according to DSS.
The surviving sibling was placed with a relative, according to DSS, which decided due to the "severity of the case," not to offer a plan for reunifying mother and child.
• In August 2009, DSS received allegations that a mother tested positive for a variety of drugs. The mother, DSS reported, was having trouble bonding with the sibling of a deceased child and had nightmares "about biting off the child's fingers."
The mother received substance abuse treatment, mental health services and medication. She graduated from a substance abuse treatment program.
"The mother and father successfully demonstrated capacity to protect their children by ensuring all their needs are met," DSS reported.
In April 2011, the agency received a report that both parents were using bath salts, a synthetic amphetamine, which DSS said causes hallucinations, addiction, delusions, health problems and strange behavior.
The mother believed she and her children had demons, the agency said. She received substance abuse treatment as well as counseling.
The case was still open when a child was found unresponsive and later died. The mother said a chair collapsed on the child.
According to DSS, the father tested positive for drugs and the mother made suicidal statements and said she heard voices.
"Parents have not complied with treatment services," DSS reported. A sibling of the dead child was placed with maternal grandparents.
• In April 2010, DSS received a report that a mother was neglecting her daughter. An unannounced visit revealed a home in "deplorable condition."
"The kitchen was not clean, with dirty dishes, molded and spoiled food on countertops, the stove and the floor," DSS reported. "The bedrooms and bathroom were unsafe and unsanitary. Thee entire home had a foul odor."
The child was placed in foster care.
Two years later, a 7-month-old child was found dead in the home.
"The home was cluttered and the room where the child and his sibling were sleeping was unsafe for children," DSS reported. "The deceased child was sleeping in the bed with his parents. The mother and the father suffer from mental health concerns."
The surviving sibling was placed in foster care and then adopted, according to DSS.
A 98-page report by the Legislative Audit Council earlier this month found that DSS workers have "excessive" caseloads, the agency uses an inadequate system for handling child abuse and neglect cases, and a changed system for reviewing abuse cases has placed children at "greater risk."
DSS has announced it will be hiring 50 new caseworkers and eight supervisors next month, as well as the hiring of 67 caseworker assistants. The agency also is handing out 10 percent raises to child welfare workers and supervisors to try and increase employee retention.
The announcement of hirings came after members of Young's panel voted unanimously last month for DSS to create a plan to begin hiring more child welfare workers right away.
Senators asked for the hiring plan because they said some caseworkers around the state were handling cases totaling more than 100 children.