SC senators seek ouster of DSS chief

03/19/2014 10:52 PM

03/19/2014 11:34 PM

Two state senators want the chief of the S.C. Department of Social Services ousted from the embattled Cabinet agency’s leadership position.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the expected Democratic candidate for governor, said Gov. Nikki Haley should fire DSS director Lillian Koller.

“We have seen a culture of incompetence and a failure of leadership,” Sheheen told The State. “I would have fired her months and months ago if I was governor.”

State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said Koller should step down.

“The ship is sinking, people are screaming for help, and the captain is hiding in the hole,” Lourie said. “It’s time for new leadership at the agency.”

Lourie and Sheheen also cast doubt on the credibility of the agency’s numbers after hearing testimony that DSS cares more about having favorable statistics than helping children.

After the hearing, DSS officials said the attacks were unfair and inaccurate and said benchmarks are shared with staff regularly, but no one has been fired for not meeting those goals.

More children have been placed with permanent families than ever before, said Jessica Hanak-Coulter, a DSS deputy director.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s office responded by touting the Cabinet agency’s statistics under Koller’s leadership:

“(C)hild deaths have decreased 25 percent, adoptions have increased 11 percent, and we have successfully moved over 20,000 people from welfare to work. Governor Haley has and will continue to support her efforts to protect and better the lives of South Carolina families and children,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.

DSS chief yet to testify

The panel formed last year after Lourie raised questions about children who had died while involved in Social Services in some way. Those deaths – 312 since 2009 – dropped to 41 last year from 73 in 2009, the agency has said.

In previous hearings, the lawmakers have heard from parents, foster care advocates, law enforcement and DSS officials.

Lourie’s demands for Koller to step down came during the panel’s third hearing Wednesday.

DSS director Lillian Koller has not testified because of an ongoing medical issues after she suffered a stroke in December. Though back at work, Koller told the Senate panel two weeks ago that she must get clearance from a doctor before testifying. That could be late April or May.

But Democrats are not the only Senate panel members convinced of serious problems at the agency.

“I don’t want this to be political,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who is a Haley ally. “But I think we need to open our eyes and see that there are problems in this agency.”

Shealy said she has fielded complaints about 150 DSS cases since being appointed to the panel. She attended a court hearing for one foster parent who she said she felt was mistreated by the agency.

After three hearings, committee chairman Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said improving transparency, regulating home child care facilities and improving coroners’ reporting requirements are changes lawmakers must make in the law to help the agency.

Young also said the complaints former DSS workers have shared about the agency’s leadership are “disturbing,” raising questions about the agency’s management.

“We do intend to hear from the director of the agency,” he said. “Just because she’s not here today, doesn’t mean she’s getting a pass not to be here. We’ve made that abundantly clear.”

Coroners, ex-DSS workers cite concerns

The panel heard from Richland and Charleston county coroners. Both cited cases where investigations into child deaths revealed troublesome patterns of abuse and questions about how DSS handled the cases, they said.

One of the cases was of a 4-year-old Richland County boy who was killed last summer. His parents have been charged in a pending court case. The boy’s DSS case history, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said, showed that the agency had 15 reports on file for the family.

The autopsy revealed that the child repeatedly had been abused over time, Watts said.

The child “suffered some mental deficiencies and had been placed in foster care at one point in time and had returned back to the family,” Watts said. “For that child to remain in that situation and to continually suffer abuse is inexcusable.”

Former DSS deputy director Linda Martin, who was fired last year after being with the agency for more than 30 years, testified that the agency was more focused on numbers than the care of children in the state. A former Richland County DSS director said he resigned early for similar reasons.

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten criticized the agency’s transparency in releasing DSS records about child death investigations, including information about cases where DSS did not move forward with an investigation. Those cases, she said, could have been improperly closed at the time and might reveal details about a child’s death.

But Hanak-Coulter, one of Koller’s deputy directors, told reporters that state law bars DSS from releasing records about cases that are “unfounded” – meaning the agency saw no reason to move forward with an investigation.

Hanak-Coulter and another agency deputy director said that the statistics and agency practices alleged in the testimony were not accurate.

Increases in accountability and more communication with foster care advocates has led to improvements within the department, including setting new goals for adoptions and getting children into permanent families, she said.

Working with lawmakers on how to improve transparency through legislative changes is a top priority, Hanak-Coulter said.

But Lourie said hearing the testimony makes him want to direct the State Law Enforcement Division or to the S.C. Inspector General to investigate the agency. The S.C. Legislative Audit Council is reviewing the agency at the General Assembly’s request.

Hanak-Coulter said the agency would welcome a review from the Inspector General.

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