A federal class action lawsuit was filed Monday against Gov. Nikki Haley and the Department of Social Services, saying a lack of heath care and other basic services is endangering children in the child welfare system.
The complaint alleges Haley and DSS are responsible for drastic foster home shortages, excessive caseloads for agency workers and a failure to provide children with basic health care. The complaint further alleges that child maltreatment while in foster care goes without investigation, and inaccurate data masks a much higher rate of abuse and neglect than the state reports to the federal government.
Children’s Rights, a national advocacy organization, along with the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and S.C. attorney Matthew Richardson filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Charleston on behalf of 11 plaintiffs, identified as children ages 2-17 who are in the care of the state’s social services system. .
Attorneys cited the example of Michelle H., 16, who allegedly has moved through at least 12 placements in eight years throughout the state, including what attorneys allege are abusive foster homes. The complaint alleges that “between the ages of 8 and 11, Michelle was repeatedly physically abused by her foster mother, including being beaten with a belt on her arms, legs, back and buttocks.”
The complaint further says Michelle’s foster mother encouraged another foster child in the home to be physically aggressive toward her, “saying that Michelle ‘needed it.’”
“Despite nearly three decades of repeated notice of dangers to children in DSS custody and multiple opportunities to improve the foster care system, Defendants have continued to ignore those dangers and operate DSS in a manner contrary to law and reasonable professional judgment in deliberate indifference to known harms and imminent risk of known harms to Plaintiff Children, so as to shock the conscience,” according to the lawsuit.
Chaney Adams, Haley’s press secretary, responded Monday that “the governor has been actively pursuing a new direction for the agency including hiring new caseworkers and human service specialists, enhancing training for those professionals and improving coordination with key stakeholders such as law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals and families.”
The lawsuit comes just a few months after a scathing Legislative Audit Council report which said DSS relies heavily on unreliable data but has failed to ask for extra money and ignores growing problems. The audit also found that caseloads in the child welfare agency are excessive and that the agency doesn’t do enough to ensure children in its care are placed in safe homes.
The lawsuit also alleges:
• Social Services overuses institutions to house children.
• Children who enter the Juvenile Justice system sometimes are kept in detention facilities simply because DSS has nowhere else to house them.
• Social Services has denied placements and treatment for children with mental health needs.
DSS spokeswoman Marilyn M. Matheus released a statement Monday, in response to the complaint: “The Department of Social Services and our child welfare caseworkers across this state are completely dedicated and work hard every day to ensure that foster children receive the care that meets their individual needs. Children who come into our care are assessed at that time to determine the services which will best provide for their physical, mental and educational needs. In regards to this specific lawsuit, the agency will fully evaluate the claims and respond in an appropriate forum.”
Sue Berkowitz, director for the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the plaintiffs are not suing for damages but want to see a systemic reform to fix the system.
“We are tired of the Band-Aid approach,” Berkowtiz said. “DSS has had numerous problems for decades, and they have been reported by LAC and the agency has not taken the steps to protect the children under their care.”
But the agency is in the process of trying to address some of the problems cited in the Legislative Audit Council report, including hiring and training new caseworkers to reduce caseloads. According to the lawsuit, South Carolina’s caseloads can be two or three times those of national and state standards, with some caseworkers having 60 or 70 children at a time.
Still, in December, DSS’ acting director Amber Gillum said the agency had hired 250 new caseworkers and supervisors since beginning a hiring push this summer. But during that same period, 139 workers left.
Haley last month named Susan Alford to lead DSS. The announcement came six months after the departure of former director Lillian Koller, who resigned amid bipartisan calls for her ousting.
The Associated Press contributed. Reach Self at (803) 771-8658. Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305.