The Buzz

April 16, 2014

DSS chief's leadership ability questioned after testimony before Senate panel

The Buzz

A blog from The State's political team of Cassie Cope, Jamie Self and Andy Shain. Email tips to thebuzz@thestate.com.

Some state senators are questioning the leadership ability of S.C. Department of Social Services director Lillian Koller, after she testified in front of a Senate panel on Wednesday.

During the three-hour discussion Senators grilled Koller on issues such as the time cases take to process, the caseload of workers, and child deaths.

"I'm not necessarily convinced with all the answers we got," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, after the testimony. Shealy said the panel just hit the tip of the iceberg with questions to be asked and there is a long way to go.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the discussion went in circles. He also said there was a void in leadership at the agency.

"I don't think she's the right person to run that agency," said Lourie, who has previously called for Koller to step down. "I think the list of questions continues to get larger. I'm very concerned about some of the things I've heard today about what happened in specific cases."

Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said lawmakers need to look seriously at whether Koller should still be the director.

"I think that we're at a point now that we have to make a decision," Shealy said. "I'm not the person to get to make that decision, but I think somebody needs to make a decision."

But Koller defended her ability to lead the agency.

Koller said she would have submitted her resignation to Gov. Nikki Haley, if she thought a child's life would be saved.

The governor's staff issued a response to Koller's testimony.

“Director Koller showed today exactly why the governor appointed her in the first place – she is a committed advocate for South Carolina's children, and someone who has overseen dramatic improvement in an agency that deals with some of the toughest, most tragic situations in our state," said Doug Mayer, spokesman for Haley. "Governor Haley is proud of Director Koller, the staff at DSS, and the changes they have made.”

Koller was appointed by Haley to run the Social Services agency.

Both senators are on a panel chaired by Tom Young, R-Aiken, that is investigating claims that the agency missed abuse cases led to child deaths. the panel in previous meetings has heard from child-welfare advocates, coroners and former Social Services employees.

Shealy and Lourie said they have gotten multiple complaints about the Department of Social Services from families and employees across the state.

"I think kids are more vulnerable today than they have been in years past and that concerns me," Lourie said.

Koller had not been able to appear before the panel earlier under doctor's orders following a stroke she had in December.

"I wish more than you know that I could have been here before you before today," she said.

In response to allegations that child deaths with DSS involvement had spiked, Koller said the concern should be that too many children are dying in South Carolina. “That statement is absolutely true.”

Later, senators questions the accuracy of the department's claims that child deaths had decreased by 25 percent.

Koller also elaborated on the story of Robert Guinyard, a 4-year-old autistic boy who was beaten to death in his Richland County home in July 2013. His parents have been charged in his death. The case is pending.

In a previous hearing, the DSS oversight committee heard from a Richland County coroner who said that the Social Services had been notified about alleged abuse in the family several times before the child's death. The autopsy showed a pattern of abuse.

“The system must do more to prevent lives like Robert’s from being lost,” Koller said, adding that Social Services immediately investigated the case after the child's death.

As a result of that inquiry, eight staff members are no longer working at Social Services, Koller said. Some were fired, others quit and one retired, she said.

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