DO THE PROBLEMS in our state’s welfare agency mean that we need to abolish the Department of Social Services and build a new agency that focuses solely on protecting children and vulnerable adults from their relatives and other caregivers?
Sen. Katrina Shealy, who has done valuable work on the special Senate panel that spent the past year trying to understand why the agency isn’t adequately protecting children from harm, believes it does; she has proposed legislation to shift food and other welfare payments to another agency and create a new Department of Family Protective Services that manages child protective services and foster care; Sen. Joel Lourie, one of the two other panelists, is a co-sponsor.
It may be that our state would be better off if we split the economic side of welfare from the child-protective side. But that ought to be done because we have concluded that there is an inherent flaw in the current arrangement. It shouldn’t be because we think it will solve the problems of inattention or underfunding or inadequate laws or the wrong leadership. It won’t.
There is powerful symbolism in declaring that protecting children from abuse and neglect is so important that we are devoting an entire agency to it. But symbolism doesn’t protect children from abuse; commitment does. Commitment and resources and the right laws.
If the governor is disengaged from child welfare, as Gov. Nikki Haley seemed until recently to be, then having a separate agency to deal with it won’t make her more engaged. If the Legislature doesn’t know enough about or pay enough attention to the agencies it funds to recognize a problem, then creating a stand-alone agency won’t change that. Likewise, if the governor is unwilling to propose or the Legislature is unwilling to pass laws that make it easier to remove children from potentially dangerous situations, having a separate agency to implement those laws won’t make a difference.
Indeed, there’s something troubling about the idea that the answer to every problem is to create a new state agency. That takes the focus off of the real answers. It’s also how we ended up with more than 100 separate state agencies — which makes it even more difficult for a governor or a Legislature to keep up with what’s going on. At least this bill doesn’t add to the number of state agencies. But we don’t see how it solves the problem, either.
Our editorial board long has argued that government should be structured in a way that allows it to work even when we don’t have the best leaders. But just as the worst arrangement can work when the perfect person is in charge, so too can the very best structure fail when the wrong person is in charge. Or the priorities are wrong. Or nobody’s paying attention.
The time to change the structure is when the structure is part of the problem. But when the law that the agency implements is the problem, you change the law. When the priorities are the problem, you change the priorities. When the people are the problem, you change the people. And based on what we know to date, all of those seem much more clearly to blame than the fact that we’ve asked one agency to both protect children from their parents and also help those parents feed the children and put a roof over their heads.