Warren Bolton

May 8, 2014

Bolton: Not all of SC’s children are all well

Given the controversy swirling around the Department of Social Services in regard to high-profile child deaths, overworked employees and other problems, we — and I mean the taxpayers and citizens of South Carolina — should be asking every day: “And how are the children?”

‘AND HOW are the children?” This traditional greeting used by members of an African tribe illustrates the high value they put on the well-being of their children.

And the anticipated answer? “All the children are well.”

Anything different suggests that not only are the children at risk but there is something terribly amiss. There has been a breakdown of the safety net that protects and nurtures the children and signifies the health and vitality of the overall community.

Given the controversy swirling around the Department of Social Services in regard to high-profile child deaths, overworked employees and other issues, we — and I mean the taxpayers and citizens of South Carolina — should be asking every day: “And how are the children?”

While legislators and other state officials, including Gov. Nikki Haley, are embroiled in the debate over the state of DSS, this is a discussion that must be monitored and engaged by everyone.

When a baby under the state’s watch is brutally beaten to death or dies of shameful neglect, we’re all responsible.

As taxpayers and citizens of this state, we collectively acknowledge that there are parents and families who fail their children and that we must step in. As individuals, we don’t have the expertise or resources to address this sizeable problem, so we collectively agree to be taxed to help fund an agency such as DSS and empower it to act in the best interest of the children.

Whatever that agency does and how it does it, it does so as an agent of every taxpaying citizen of South Carolina. It has our proxy to reach out and help those children in our name. When it succeeds — and indeed it does have successes — and when it fails, it is a reflection on us all.

While many children have loving, nurturing homes, others live in environments where their daily existence is terror-filled; each day they survive unharmed is a blessed day. Many who are taken into protective custody by DSS are placed in safe, nurturing homes; but others aren’t as fortunate. Some move from home to home, struggling to fit in — and to survive. In some instances, the family suffers at the hands of the child.

DSS has the responsibility to ensure that all children it comes into contact with receive the care they need.

I know there will be tragedies that the agency simply can’t prevent. DSS is a tough agency to run. Even in the best circumstances, children are going to be hurt; some are going to die. Yet we must be ever vigilant in working to minimize tragedy. The death of even one child is a tragedy.

The fact that the agency has such a difficult task makes it doubly important to ensure that it has the right leadership and employees as well as the necessary resources and support. It must work tirelessly to save children’s lives and be ready to answer the question, “And how are the children?”

As it stands, not all of South Carolina’s tiniest citizens are well, which is why a Senate panel — responding to a series of deaths of children who had involvement with DSS — has been compelled to hold hearings on the agency. Some Democratic and Republican senators have been so moved that they demanded that Director Lillian Koller be fired.

Sens. Joel Lourie and Katrina Shealy, who have been bombarded with emails and phone calls from families and even DSS workers with horror story after horror story, have taken the lead on demanding action.

DSS claims fewer children are dying after some involvement with the agency since Ms. Koller arrived in 2011, and Gov. Haley lauds the job her appointee is doing. But critics and child advocates suggest that the numbers are misleading, that things are worse than ever at the agency and that child deaths are flat, at best. Critics say that Ms. Koller’s focus has been too much on getting numbers down and not enough on protecting the lives of children.

As my colleague Cindi Scoppe has written, whatever the numbers, we can’t ignore the sad details of child deaths and some of the coinciding actions by DSS.

Just consider the most recent death of a 5-month-old under DSS care who had a heart condition that required around-the-clock monitoring but didn’t get it. A medical professional concerned for the child’s safety notified officials on March 3; by the time social workers made contact with the family on April 25, the child had been dead for three days.

There are those who say it’s not DSS’ job alone to care for our kids, and they’re right. While some might be sick of hearing that we all share part of the blame when senseless tragedies strike our children, it’s true. As another African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The village around our children must play a role in keeping them alive and well: Villagers can serve as safety nets for children and take action if they know something is wrong.

While the parents are responsible first and foremost and are duty-bound to love, nurture and protect their children, communities collectively must care for our youngest citizens. If not for people outside of the home and family intervening, most child abuse cases probably would never be reported.

Teachers and principals and friends and neighbors and preachers and church members must speak out. Family members and friends and coworkers can’t stay mum.

DSS workers would be the first to tell you that if you have a good suspicion abuse is occurring, you need to contact the agency; it’s incumbent upon DSS to check it out.

Just as we should intervene when one child is abused, we should intervene when the entire system we’ve collectively approved of is failing children.

Frankly, given the competing characterizations of the state of DSS, I don’t know whether things are better or worse than when Ms. Koller took over the agency. But I can tell you that the DSS we have today hasn’t done a good enough job, and we must do better.

The high-profile deaths, the stories about workers’ caseloads being too heavy and other reports steadily rolling in are all signs that something’s not right with the safety net we’ve built for our children.

It’s our collective duty to raise questions and expect DSS, lawmakers and the governor to have answers. And if the ultimate answer isn’t, “All the children are well,” then we’ve got work to do, meaning changes to make.

To leave DSS in the condition it is in, when we know children are dying and resources are too few, would be grossly negligent.

And it would be the fault of all of us.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (083) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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