Two years ago, the state’s child welfare agency started referring some cases of alleged child abuse to outside contractors for help.
The result, according to a long-awaited audit, released Friday?
The number of children subsequently abused in the families which had been referred to the outside contractors more than doubled to 2,508.
The Legislative Audit Council report also found the S.C. Department of Social Services investigated 34 percent fewer child-abuse complaints after the agency started making referrals to outside contractors. Social Services made referrals in cases where it thought a family’s problems were not severe enough to trigger an investigation.
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Instead, from June 2012 to June 2013, the agency referred nearly 30,000 children and their families outside the agency for help.
The statistics were among several that were troubling to Legislative Audit Council auditors, who presented their report Friday to a panel of senators investigating Social Services. The auditors urged Social Services to quit outsourcing some of its work.
“In a child-welfare system where kids are already falling through the cracks, by contracting this out, we are just adding additional cracks through which children may fall,” audit manager Andy Young said of the community services program, launched in 2012 by former Social Services director Lillian Koller, who resigned in June.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, agreed, saying, “We need to be responsible for South Carolina’s children. We don’t need to put them in somebody else’s hands.”
Without improvements, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he would recommend eliminating state money for the community services program next year.
But Social Services acting director Amber Gillum defended the program in a letter to the Audit Council.
Abuse that happens after Social Services refers children and their families to outside help does not prove the agency erred or overlooked risks in its initial assessment, she wrote.
Under the program, families receive services from child advocates who are required by law to report abuse, she said. Under the old system, those families would have received nothing because the agency would have found their problems were not severe enough.
Gillum did not address the significant drop in investigations conducted by the agency.
Social Services reports directly to Gov. Nikki Haley. However, Haley spokesman Doug Mayer did not respond Friday to questions about the community services program.
Instead, Mayer said the audit, overall, underscores the importance of the “new direction” Social Services has been “actively pursuing.”
“DSS has been hard at work for over a year making improvements, (producing) solid results,” including a law enforcement liaison at the agency, new goals for lowering caseloads and 74 new hires since June, he said.
Suspicious deaths unreported
Social Services has been the subject of scrutiny since last year, when lawmakers began asking questions about whether the agency had missed opportunities to protect children who later died.
Since beginning hearings in January, senators have heard from law enforcement, coroners, child welfare advocates, former Social Services employees and parents who have complained about the agency’s communication and management issues, chronically heavy caseloads and high turnover.
The three-member Senate oversight panel met Friday to hear Social Services’ plan to hire 221 new child welfare workers, part of an effort to lower heavy caseloads that threaten children’s safety, critics say.
Haley’s office said Thursday the governor would back that request.
The Audit Council report also found fault with other parts of the child safety net.
For example, some child deaths have gone unreported to the state, auditors reported.
Although the law requires coroners to report to SLED all violent, unexpected and unexplained child deaths, the audit found 152 fatalities from 2009 to 2013 that did not show up in SLED’s database. About two-thirds of those deaths were unreported; the rest did not make it into the system.
Perry Simpson, the Audit Council’s director, said that he is confident that, moving forward, the state will have much more reliable reporting of child deaths as a result of the review.
Heavy caseloads, high turnover rates, unqualified employees and Social Services contracts also were subjects of the Audit Council review.
In 2011, the agency broke the law when it awarded a $719,000 “emergency” contract to a company for technical assistance and training that did not meet the definition of emergency in state law, the auditors said.
That company, Benton and Associates, worked for Hawaii’s child welfare agency while Koller was running that agency before coming to South Carolina, senators said.
Auditors also said Social Services contracts of more than $50 million with the University of South Carolina and $20 million with Winthrop University bypassed the state’s procurement process.
In doing so, Social Services left out other potential vendors and “can give the impression of favoritism,” said Simpson.
In its response to the audit, Social Services said it should follow the state’s contract laws. But it said the university contracts — to provide training, among other services — are legal.
‘False impression of ... the magnitude’
Auditors also found Social Services reported false statistics to the federal government on the number of child welfare workers that it employs and their turnover rate.
In its reports, the agency included non-child welfare employees and failed to report caseworkers who had moved to another state agency or another job within Social Services, the report says.
Those false statements left “(t)hose who rely on this information for reporting or funding purposes ... with a false impression of the size of the child welfare staff and the magnitude of its child welfare staff turnover.”
Simpson said the audit did not study whether the inaccurate staffing levels that were reported resulted in the agency getting more federal money.