State senators want to allow the state Department of Social Services to release details about suspected child-abuse and neglect cases that the agency decided not to investigate and report publicly when abuse cases result in children dying or being seriously injured.
Lawmakers also want to make sure coroners are reporting suspicious child deaths. Current law requires them to report but provides no oversight or enforcement tool to ensure that happens.
A bill that senators say should accomplish all goals, with a little more work, cleared a Senate panel Wednesday and is heading to the full Senate Judiciary Committee for review. The bill is part of a legislative push in the House and Senate to reform the child-protection agency.
The Senate bill has backing from members of a panel tasked with reviewing claims that Social Services has overlooked abuse cases that have led to child fatalities that critics say could have been avoided.
In four meetings, the panel heard from child advocates, foster parents, law enforcement, coroners and former Social Services employees who said child deaths are not accurately reported by county coroners and the state agency overlooked children who were abused and later died.
Senators asked the agency to respond with details about cases made public in the hearings.
“We wanted to know about those cases because we heard from the families,” said state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, chairman of the special Social Services oversight panel.
But Social Services officials said they are barred from discussing publicly cases where they found no cause for investigation.
The bill would change that, allowing Social Services to confirm, correct or clarify information about suspected child-abuses cases that are made public by others.
Where cases have not been released publicly, Young said, the bill would allow Social Services to share that information with lawmakers in sessions that are closed to the public.
It also would require Social Services to report publicly about cases where child abuse or neglect resulted in a death or serious injury. Social Services could decide to withhold details that could endanger the child or his or her family, interfere with a criminal investigation or publicly identify the person who reported the abuse.
Social Services’ practice of referring some cases to outside groups also worries some lawmakers.
Sen. Young said he is working on another amendment that would address that practice. In the House, Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, said she would like to see that practice outlawed after hearing of cases where Social Services referred abused children to outside agencies and the children later died.
Horne said she pushed for the Legislative Audit Council to review Social Services two years ago. “I had received too many complaints (about Social Services in Dorchester County) to ignore.”
Lawmakers expect that audit to be released soon.
Protecting S.C. children