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Lawsuit in child deaths goes to the heart of long SC DSS controversy

Twenty months ago, when news of the five slain Jones children first stunned South Carolina and the nation, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen slammed Gov. Nikki Haley and the S.C. Department of Social Services for not doing more to protect the Jones children.

Haley, who had earlier in 2014 praised the then-DSS director Lillian Keller as being a “rock star,” slammed Sheheen for playing politics.

“Vincent Sheheen is long been known as someone who will try to take political advantage of any tragedy, but we didn’t think even he would stoop so low as to politicize one of the saddest situations in state history,” a Haley spokesman said on Sept. 16, 2014, two weeks after the killings came to light and DSS’s involvement was just beginning to be known.

At the time, Sheheen, a Camden Democrat, was running for governor.

Reached Tuesday, Sheheen said in a text, “So many of our state agencies are now dysfunctional – a disgrace. And I’m very sad about our state government. Sixteen years of (former Gov. Mark) Sanford and Haley have pretty much broken it.”

Since the 2014 Jones children’s deaths, evidence has only mounted of the failings that indicate an unknown number of deaths and injuries to vulnerable children under DSS’s care.

Under state law, the agency is charged with protecting children under the age of 18 from abuse and neglect. It has caseworkers who visit families with children who are suspected of being abused and may even be in danger of dying.

A month after Sheheen’s charges, the Legislative Audit Council released a scathing report that said due to inadequate reporting procedures, no one knows how many vulnerable children under DSS’s oversight have actually been killed and abused. Underfunding of DSS is a critical issue, the report said.

In January, 2015, a federal class action lawsuit was filed against Haley and DSS, saying a lack of heath care and other basic services is endangering children in the child welfare system. The complaint was filed by Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group, and the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. That lawsuit is now undergoing mediation in federal court.

But in the past year, the Legislature has increased funding, and persistent DSS critics like state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, are watching.

“Deaths were happening around South Carolina,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who with Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, formed a Senate oversight committee in 2013 that held hearings highlighting anecdotes of DSS failures that led to numerous child deaths.

DSS still has failings, Lourie said, but there has been increased funding and a new progressive director, Susan Alford. “You got a problem when you have a government that’s not willing to invest in its employees,” Lourie said.

A DSS spokeswoman said Tuesday that in the 2015-16 fiscal year, the DSS received new funding for 177 new caseworkers and 67 new caseworker assistants. “Of the new caseworkers, 167 are currently filled, and of the caseworker assistant positions, 61 are currently filled,” a spokeswoman said.

A Haley spokeswoman said the governor would not retract her comments about Sheheen.

“This was a tragedy in 2014, and it remains one today. None of the facts from 2014 – which DSS released at the time – have changed, and that includes the fact that Senator Sheheen was running for governor against Governor Haley. So, yes, we absolutely stand by that statement,” said spokeswoman Chaney Adams.

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