Politics & Government

May 13, 2014

State stepping in at Richland DSS, SC governor says

Gov. Nikki Haley unveiled a plan Tuesday to improve caseloads and child-welfare services at the Department of Social Services’ Richland County office.

Gov. Nikki Haley unveiled a plan Tuesday to improve caseloads and child-welfare services at the Department of Social Services’ Richland County office.

A short-term intervention team and new hires, including more caseworkers, are part of the plan, Haley said in an interview with The State.

Haley said Social Services has been on her radar since before she became governor.

“I knew as a legislator all the problems we had with it. I knew that it never seemed to go well, and it’s a sad agency,” Haley said, adding she sought out Lillian Koller to lead the agency from a similar position in Hawaii to bring an “outside perspective.”

Haley’s plan comes amid persistent questions about Koller’s leadership of the Cabinet agency, which reports directly to the Republican governor who is seeking re-election, and after questions about employee turnover and deaths among children involved with Social Services.

Critics noted Haley’s admission of trouble at Social Services came after weeks of defending the agency. Her solutions, they add, include things that should be done in counties statewide, not just Richland.

“Were going to need more than a Band-Aid,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “This is a feel-good thing.”

Ongoing problems in Richland

Improvements to Richland County’s Social Services office began last year, after the death of Robert Guinyard, a 4-year-old autistic boy who was beaten fatally in his home, Haley said. Guinyard’s care had been investigated by Social Services several times.

Those moves included a new county director, increased staffing and training, better management procedures and more support from other state agencies.

More moves were made, she said, after a second Richland County child died.

“When Baby Bryson happened, that’s when I said, ‘OK, something’s gotta give,’ ” Haley said, referring to 5-month-old Bryson Webb, who died in the back seat of a car April 22.

Social Services had received a tip about the child being in danger. But the agency said it could not find the child’s parents and waited seven weeks to follow up with the medical professional who issued the warning.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott held a news conference after the child’s death, criticizing Social Services for not telling law enforcement when the agency could not locate Bryson’s parents.

In response, Social Services put in place a new policy to call law enforcement within 72 hours if it cannot locate a family.

This week, the agency also has taken 20 caseworkers from other counties to help with Richland cases, Haley said.

Haley also wants to hire at least 20 new employees in coming months, from caseworkers to supervisors, and will make permanent 10 temporary positions at the county agency, spokesman Doug Mayer said.

‘Just an issue in Richland?’

Lott said Tuesday that anything Social Services does will be an improvement.

But Lott also questioned how far-reaching the problem is, asking: “Is this just an issue in Richland County? It’s almost like (Haley’s plan) is a direct response to an incident we have here but doesn’t address the overall problem. Richland County just mirrors problems that we’ve got throughout DSS.”

State senators on a panel investigating complaints about Social Services raised similar concerns.

Shealy said Haley’s plan sounds “great.”

“Let’s do that,” she said. “But why only Richland County? We’ve got these problems all over the state.”

Shealy and Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who have called on Haley to fire Koller, said the governor’s plan is moving employees to Richland from other counties where they also are needed.

“Where are they going to take them from?” Shealy asked. “What county is going to suffer because of this?”

Lourie criticized Haley for only acting now, saying the issues at Social Services have been ongoing.

“Where have you been, governor?” Lourie said, noting Haley has called Koller a “rock star” and said the agency has improved under her leadership. “All of a sudden, you’ve done a 180-degree turn and you’ve sent in a SWAT team?”

Lourie called the announcement a “Band-Aid for a chest wound” at an agency where potential abuse victims “are not being seen in a timely manner” and “caseworkers (are) being overloaded.”

Paige Green, executive director of Richland County CASA’s court-appointed child advocates, said Haley’s plan, which Koller called her about Tuesday morning, seems like an improvement. “We’ve got to try something new because what we’re doing isn’t working.”

Green added she hopes Social Services has the money to hire new caseworkers for the county office. “You’ve got to have boots on the ground.”

Haley said her plan for Richland’s Social Services office includes creating a “second shift” of caseworkers who will improve efforts to reach families and children outside of the normal 9-to-5 workday.

Haley said a similar intervention happened in Greenville County, adding more could come in other counties if necessary.

‘10 other directors’

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley’s Democratic challenger in November, said the proposed changes “are like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

“They don’t address the fundamental problem,” Sheheen said. “We can’t trust that these local changes will be implemented under a DSS head with a record of mismanagement and Haley’s refusal to demand accountability.”

But Haley said improvements have been ongoing under Koller. “It’s easy to throw stones — our job is to solve problems.

“Are we doing enough? No,” Haley said. “We will never be comfortable saying we are doing enough.”

But Haley said Koller’s resignation would not change the issues at Social Services.

“If I knew, or she knew, that her resigning would save one child, we’d do it,” she said. “But I could put 10 other directors in there, and I’m still going to have these problems in Richland County.”

Intervention in Richland County

Gov. Nikki Haley announced several changes underway at the state Department of Social Services’ Richland County office in response to recent child deaths. Haley’s plan, at a glance:

•  Shift 20 caseworkers from other counties to relieve caseloads in Richland County.
•  Hire, in coming months, 20 new employees — from caseworkers to supervisors — and make permanent 10 existing temporary positions.
•  Create a liaison between Social Services, law enforcement and other child-welfare agencies in the county.
•  Improve collaboration between the state’s alcohol-and-drug-abuse agency and the departments of Mental Health and Social Services.

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