Critics question whether SC agency is cutting child deaths

04/22/2014 3:28 PM

07/29/2014 8:05 PM

A state senator and a child-welfare advocate Tuesday disputed a claim by the state Department of Social Services that fewer children are dying under that agency’s care.

Gov. Nikki Haley and Social Services have said child deaths are down 25 percent since Lillian Koller took over leadership of that agency in 2011.

But the drop in child deaths includes cases where children died by accident or after terminal illnesses – making it an unreliable indicator of whether Social Services is getting better at cutting child deaths due to abuse, said state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, and child advocate Laura Hudson.

Democrat Lourie, who called on Republican Haley to fire Koller at a State House news conference Tuesday, also accused Social Services of taking longer than S.C. law allows for case workers to see foster children and to complete initial investigations into child-abuse complaints.

Social Services denied those claims, saying recent reports show the agency meeting those goals in 90 percent or more of cases.

A bipartisan Senate panel, including Lourie, has been investigating claims that children died after Social Services overlooked abuse cases.

Haley has defended Koller fiercely against calls for her removal. On Tuesday, Haley’s spokesman again praised Koller, saying a 25 percent reduction in deaths of children involved with Social Services – to 76 in 2013 from 101 in 2010 – is an example of her effectiveness.

But Hudson, a member of the state Child Fatality Advisory Committee, told The State that Social Services’ numbers are “a little disingenuous.” That’s because the agency’s numbers include accident deaths and deaths from terminal illnesses – deaths that do not likely indicate abuse as a cause.

According to Hudson’s research, the number of children who have died from violent, suspicious or unexplained deaths after being involved with Social Services has changed only slightly – from 76 in 2010 to 67 a year from 2011 to 2013.

An April 6 report shows caseworkers had not reported meeting with 46 percent of suspected victims of child abuse statewide.

Lourie says that violates state law.

Social Services deputy director Hanak-Coulter disagreed. Following a report of abuse, caseworkers try to meet with children face-to-face within 24 hours under agency policy, but state law requires only that a thorough investigation begin within that period, she said.

Lourie highlighted those numbers as “screaming right now.”

In a statement, Koller dismissed Lourie’s criticisms as political.

“While there are always things we need to improve upon, we have also made great strides in many critical areas,” Koller said. “I do not intend to let politics or any personal agenda impede this agency’s continued progress in making the lives of children and families in South Carolina better.”

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