The House Legislative Oversight Committee has voted to examine the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs because issues of health, life and safety have been raised by members of the public and some lawmakers following stories about the agency in The Greenville News.
The committee annually reviews select state agencies to assess their performance and examine any allegations by the public or issues and problems.
"Members of this committee as well as constituents have shared concerns, and significantly, a number of those concerns raised involve life, health and safety of some of the state's most vulnerable citizens," Rep. Weston Newton, chairman of the committee, told the panel before it voted unanimously to choose DDSN as one of four agencies to examine this year.
Lois Park Mole, a spokeswoman for DDSN, said the committee by law has to review each agency once every seven years and her agency welcomes the opportunity to identify strengths and weaknesses.
"The committee’s study process will afford legislative members an opportunity to better understand DDSN’s mission, organizational structure, state and federal laws and regulations that govern, oversee and direct agency operations and how services are provided and quality is monitored," she said.
"DDSN’s role of providing high quality services and supports to individuals with disabilities and their families is extremely important. Accountability and transparency to stakeholders and citizens is highly valued by DDSN’s commission and state director and is integrated in all activities of the agency," she said. "We look forward to working closely with the Legislative Oversight Committee to identify strengths and weaknesses of the current system and continue improvement."
State Rep. Phyllis Henderson, a Greenville Republican who chairs the healthcare subcommittee of the oversight panel, recommended to the full 20-member committee that DDSN be selected this year for review because of "information brought to us in the news."
She told The Greenville News on Wednesday that she was referring to stories in The News as well as comments by some senators about the agency.
"We just really felt because of the coverage and the issues and the things that have been happening that it would be the best decision to put DDSN on the list for the next study," she said. "I have not reviewed anything or met with anybody so I have no conclusions except that when there are stories and things are happening then it is natural that it would be the right opportunity for us to take a look."
Those stories began last summer with an examination of a DDSN private provider, SC Mentor, and some of its problems, including abuse and neglect allegations, deaths and its care of vulnerable adults.
DDSN has frozen admissions to Mentor three times due to problems with the provider and Mentor was the subject of a state inspector general report given to the DDSN commission last year.
The newspaper has since reported on a host of issues and problems involving the agency or vulnerable adults, including incidents of abuse and neglect, the system for investigating allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation, financial and administrative irregularities discovered in audits of county disabilities agencies, the lack of participation in medication technician training by DDSN providers and delays in the agency addressing recommendations from two critical Legislative Audit Council reports.
DDSN oversees the care of tens of thousands of those with intellectual disabilities, autism, brain or spinal cord injuries through its facilities, private providers or county disabilities agencies.
Deborah McPherson, a former DDSN commissioner and advocate for vulnerable adults, said she was pleased the panel will look at the agency.
She said the move could offer a means for family members of vulnerable adults to voice their experiences.
"I truly believe that in the DDSN system through the years that there have been family members and providers who have been reluctant to say anything out of fear of retaliation," she said. "I hope it's going to be a vehicle for folks where there has been retaliation, for a family member or a provider, this will give them an opportunity to speak out."
Henderson said part of the process in conducting such reviews is to allow people to submit information to the panel anonymously online.
McPherson said while she supports a current legislative proposal to place the agency in the governor's cabinet, she also supports legislative oversight because she said both efforts are needed.
"I think it's good for the DDSN administration to know they have got someone looking at what they are doing," she said.
She said there have been serious problems at the agency, including its handling of allegations of abuse, deaths and spending.
"This has been an agency that through the years has some times disregarded LAC recommendations," she said. "When you get to the point where you ignore people and act like you don't have to answer to anyone, then I think it's time for somebody to reign them in."
For family members of vulnerable adults, she said the legislative oversight review will give them an opportunity to share "information that they have not felt free to share in the past."
Henderson said the review will take place after her panel completes its study of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
She said the committee's review process includes a presentation by the agency and submission of various reports, a public hearing at which members of the public and others can share information about the agency, the opportunity for employees and members of the public to submit information anonymously, and meetings at which lawmakers can ask questions and request additional information.
Such reviews, she said, can result in legislation, either at the request of lawmakers or by the agency or both.
The panel also voted to look at the State Election Commission, the John de la Howe School, and the State Human Affairs Commission.