Politics & Government

March 26, 2014

SC Senate panel told of DSS ‘despair’

A mother whose infant daughter died in an illegal Greenville day-care center joined child-welfare advocates and a coroner in urging a state Senate panel Wednesday to reform the S.C. Department of Social Services.

A mother whose infant daughter died in an illegal Greenville day-care center joined child-welfare advocates and a coroner Wednesday in urging a state Senate panel to reform the S.C. Department of Social Services.

Kathryn Martin of Greenville said that she did not know about previous problems with the day-care facility where her daughter died, or that the state only would inspect the center if there was a complaint.

But Michael Watts, a former Social Services caseworker, said the high number of cases that social workers must oversee could lead to abuse cases falling through the cracks.

Meanwhile, Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock echoed other coroners’ concerns that it is sometimes difficult to get case histories on children who die from the state agency.

Lillian Koller, director of Social Services, again did not testify before the Senate panel, which met for the fourth time to continue its review of complaints against the agency.

Koller’s doctor has limited her activity after she suffered a stroke in December.

Koller will answer mounting questions about the agency’s performance and management in a hearing April 16, said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, the panel’s chairman.

Koller’s deputy directors point to a range of improvements — including increased adoptions and more services made available to the public — as evidence the agency’s performance is getting better, not worse.

For example, for the first time in the agency’s history, Social Services met federal benchmarks for child welfare services last year, avoiding a $1.2 million fine.

But questions about whether social workers are trying to oversee too many cases persist as senators review child-death cases and find that, in some cases, abuse was overlooked.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, has been most critical of the agency, calling for Koller to resign. But the panel’s two Republican senators also see complaints against the agency as signs of trouble.

Former Social Services caseworker Watts echoed concerns about the number of cases that social workers have in his testimony Wednesday.

Watts said he left the agency in 2012 to work as a court-appointed child advocate in Richland County because his workdays at Social Services were too long and his caseload too high. Each case, he added, may have more than one child involved, making the number of children a caseworker is looking after much higher than the number of cases he has.

In his new role, Watts still works alongside social workers from Social Services.

“To see my former fellow co-workers in a sense of despair is quite alarming,” Watts said. “They want to do the best work that they can, but, at this time, the caseload is just overbearing.”

Watts said he questions whether overloaded agency social workers inappropriately refer abuse cases to get help from outside groups.

Social Services representatives have touted their agency’s ability to increase the assistance that families receive by referring less serious cases to community organizations that offer families counseling and other assistance on a voluntary basis.

Watts said he is reviewing a case where Social Services referred a child victim of sexual abuse to one of these community organizations. Social Services had removed the abused girl from her home and placed her in foster care. The girl went back home after the abuser was ordered to stay away.

Later, Social Services received a report, Watts said, that the girl had bruises on her face and was living with the abuser again, Watts said. The case was referred to a community organization, instead of being investigated by Social Services, he said.

In light of complaints of heavy workloads, Lourie asked at the hearing why the agency is not requesting more money to hire people.

Jessica Hanak-Coulter, one of Koller’s deputy directors, did not answer the question directly, saying only Social Services continuously evaluates its staffing levels. Social Services also has been hiring, she said. As of March 11, the agency had 990 “front-line” social workers on staff, up from 855 in June.

State law, not DSS, to blame?

The panel also heard from Kathryn Martin of Greenville, who delivered testimony that Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, called “heartbreaking.”

Martin told senators she did not blame Social Services for the February death of her 3-month-old daughter, Kellie Rynn Martin, who suffocated while being cared for at a home day-care center operated by Pamela Clark Wood.

Martin’s daughter was found unresponsive in a bassinet at the home day-care center, which was registered with Social Services. Authorities also found 14 children hiding in the basement with the day-care operator’s daughter, another child unattended in the yard and a loaded gun in a room.

Martin did not know, she told the senators, that the day-care center had three previous complaints against it and was not licensed or inspected by the state.

“My family and others placed our trust in an in-home day-care system,” she said. “We wanted a small, safe environment for our children.”

Martin wants registered child-care facilities required to have business licenses, submit to regular inspections from Social Services and run background checks on their employees.

“Kellie Rynn’s death has been considered an accident,” Martin said. “But this tragedy could have been prevented. How many children have to die in care to have new laws written to provide basic levels of health and safety?”

Social Services posts information online about all child-care providers in the state, including whether they are licensed or registered and whether they have had complaints in the past three years, spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus told The State.

Social Services investigated three complaints against Wood’s in-home center. In 2005, Wood was not registered with the state. Subsequently, she registered. In 2006, Wood was found caring for 10 children, more than the six-child limit for registered day-care providers. In 2007, after a complaint was lodged about an unattended child on the in-home center’s playground, Social Services discovered seven children in her care.

After each instance, the agency returned for an unannounced home visit and the problems were corrected. Social Services received no other complaints about the day-care center.

Wood now faces charges of child neglect, obstruction of justice and operating an illegal day-care center in connection with Kellie Rynn Martin’s death.

Social Services can inspect most child-care facilities any time, but not registered family homes, which are only inspected when there is a complaint, said Leigh Bolick, Social Services’ director of early care and education.

The agency tries to inform parents of the difference between licensed and registered day cares, Bolick said.

“Our hearts go out to those parents who so tragically lost that child,” she said.

Social Services probe continues

A state Senate panel met for the fourth time Wednesday to hear testimony about the S.C. Department of Social Services. The agency’s director, Lillian Koller, will testify April 16. However, other agency leaders say the agency’s services are improving, noting:

Child deaths have dropped to 76 children in 2013 from 101 in 2010

Adoptions increased to 1,855 since February 2011, up from 1,658 from 2008-2010

The agency has 990 “front-line” social workers, up from 855 last June.

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