Kelly Heidt said the S.C. Department of Social Services took her 5-year-old granddaughter into custody after her father, a Marine, was accused of molesting her based on an anonymous tip.
The father was cleared a month later but not until after the child was placed in a foster home and went through a forensic exam to spot signs of abuse. DSS refused the grandparents’ request to care for the girl after the arrest even though the child’s mother was suffering from cancer, Heidt said.
“How can DSS say it loves and cares for kids when they do this?” Heidt told state senators examining at the social agency on Wednesday. “They’re heartless, inhumane, horrible people. It’s crime what they’ve done.”Senators apologized. “What you described is like a scene out of a horror (movie),” state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said.
The oversight hearings started last year after Lourie wanted an examination into three Richland County abuse-related deaths of children involved with DSS in some way. In 2013, 58 children who were involved with DSS died statewide, down from 73 four years earlier. DSS-related cases are not falling as fast as all child deaths in South Carolina during that time, according to data provided by the S.C. Crime Victims Council.
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Hearings expanded into other child-protection issues at the agency that have been raised to lawmakers since a hearing in October. Witnesses during a three-hour hearing told senators about problems DSS has investigating cases and regulating foster-care providers.
“Maybe we need to do some revamping of the agency,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who also received complaints about the agency.
Agency leaders are scheduled to testify at another hearing next week, though it is unclear if DSS director Lillian Koller will appear after suffering an undisclosed medical issue last month.
"DSS ... is fighting to continue the positive downward trend of child fatalities we have seen over the past three years," the agency said in a statement. "Our work at DSS is never done and we look forward to continuing the conversation about doing everything possible individually and collectively to safeguard our children."
Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Center, said she was concerned about the number of cases investigated by DSS’s Child Protective Services unit have dropped. They fell by 1,000 between 2011 and 2012, she said. After reviewing initial abuse complaints, DSS can send less severe cases to volunteer community organizations. But Berkowitz said too many cases are being outsourced “when there are more serious problems going on.”
Paige Greene, executive director of a Richland County agency that protects the interests of child victims in the legal system, said she has seen cases with parents who are drug addicted or threatened sent from DSS to community groups because case workers are not looking closely enough.
Berkowitz and Greene blamed goals to reduce the numbers of at-risk children that have made employees fear for their jobs.
“There’s pressure to not have children in foster care and return children before the time is appropriate to them,” Berkowitz said. “We are trying to a paint a picture that things are better than they actually are.”Witnesses also complained about DSS case workers abuse their power and fail to respect the rights of relatives who could care for at-risk kids.
“DSS seems to think it’s a much better parent than most parents,” John Schafer, director of the Grandparents Rights Association of the United States, told lawmakers.
Schafer wants legislators to end legal immunity for DSS workers for their actions, allow review of DSS cases with names of children redacted and improve oversight of child protection cases.
Heidt, whose granddaughter was taken suddenly by DSS in what she calls a “kidnapping,” said she could not get help after reaching out to public officials.
“If we didn’t have the money (to hire a private attorney), she’d still be in the system right now,” Heidt said.
Heidt reached out to Shealy while her granddaughter was under state care. The senator, an ally of Gov. Nikki Haley who chose Koller for the DSS job, said she spoke to the director and other agency leaders.
“I tried to get them to fix that problem,” Shealy said. “They wouldn’t help me. ... They kept saying, ‘We’re working on it.’ ”Shealy said DSS leaders know they are facing a serious problem.
“At first, I think they tried to talk to me. Now, they don’t talk to me much anymore,” she said. “Well, somebody is going to talk to us (next week).”