Crime & Courts

Lawsuit forces better treatment for SC’s abused, neglected kids

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A negotiated settlement that parties said will better the lives of South Carolina’s vulnerable children was filed Friday in federal court.

The settlement comes almost 18 months after Children’s Rights, a national child safety watchdog group, and the Columbia-based Appleseed Legal Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 children, alleging long-running mismanagement at the S.C. Department of Social Services has repeatedly endangered children in the agency’s care.

Defendants in the lawsuit were Gov. Nikki Haley and Susan Alford, the DSS director. Attorney Matthew Richardson of Columbia filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 11 plaintiffs, identified as children ages 2-17 who were at that time in the care of the state’s social services system.

It is the second major South Carolina legal settlement announced this week in which advocates had to sue state officials to stop vulnerable people from being killed and injured due to oversight failures by state agencies. Earlier this week, the state agreed to spend some $9 million to upgrade treatment and facilities for mentally ill inmates at state prisons.

The prisoner lawsuit had taken 11 years to reach a settlement. Child care advocates on Friday gave Haley credit for taking the initiative to reach a speedy resolution to the DSS lawsuit in only about 18 months. The settlement still must be approved by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston.

“We commend Gov. Haley and her administration for recognizing the need for change and doing the right thing for kids,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights.

Unlike the prison agreement, the settlement reached Friday does not require specific money to be spent.

However, it commits the state to:

▪  Develop and implement new caseload standards for child social workers. Many workers are still responsible for monitoring 50 children or more. During Legislative hearings last year, some were reported to have up to 100 cases.

▪  Upgrading the ways DSS monitors, investigates and takes action when children are abused by their caregiver.

▪  Reducing the number of kids in institutions and placing more in family housing.

▪  Making sure that an effective program is in place for giving children in DSS care regular medical and dental checkups and treatment, as well as access to mental health screening and treatment.

As part of the settlement, two recognized child welfare experts will be appointed independent co-monitors of the agency. They will issue periodic, public reports on progress.

Appleseed director Sue Berkowitz said that although the agreement doesn’t set specific financial targets, it’s reasonable to assume if more resources are needed, state officials will work for them in the Legislature.

In any case, Berkowitz said, by coming to an agreement in a relatively short time, the state avoided spending huge amounts of money on legal fees and leaving children “in limbo” during litigation.

“Both DSS and foster care have been woefully underfunded for a long time, and we feel confident the governor and the agency are committed to getting the resources that will be needed,” Berkowitz said.

CRITICISMS

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 3,400 abused and neglected children under DSS’s case.

It followed years of news reports about children under DSS care who were killed or injured as a result of various kinds of mismanagement and underfunding.

Under state law, DSS is charged with protecting children under the age of 18 from abuse and neglect. The agency has caseworkers who visit families with children who are suspected of being abused, neglected or in dangerous situations and may even be in danger of dying. Many children are placed in foster or group homes, and DSS is supposed to have workers who specifically oversee their safety and well-being.

The agency now has 4,100 children under its care and a staff of 3,995, according to DSS figures.

The lawsuit targeted a foster home shortage, excessive caseworker workloads and poor health care for children.

Last year, in response to continuing reports of deaths, the lawsuit and other public criticism, Haley and the Legislature began to take steps to better fund the agency and give it more resources.

And last September, the lawsuit prompted Haley and Alford to reach an interim agreement with the plaintiffs.

The Legislature also increased DSS’s funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The agency will get $715 million next year, up from $694 million this year.

A press release by Children’s Rights when the suit was filed said DSS had the highest rate in the country for placing children 12 and under in institutions instead of in homes. Children under DSS’s care also were repeatedly shuffled around, placed far from relatives and denied visits with siblings, advocacy groups said.

LITTLE MONEY, DATA

Although DSS has for many years been the subject of criticism for being underfunded and mishandling children in its care, criticism has escalated in recent years as more cases of child deaths became known, and more people began speaking out.

In late 2014, a Legislative Audit Council report concluded that DSS failed to ask for extra money for its growing problems. The audit also found that worker caseloads were excessive and that the agency didn’t ensure children were placed in safe homes.

The report also said DSS kept unreliable data and, consequently, no one could say with certainty exactly how many children were dying on the agency’s watch.

In a statement Friday, Haley said, “There is nothing more important than the safety of our children and our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those under the care of DSS ... we remain focused on strengthening DSS.

DSS director Alford released a statement, which said her agency has been working on “sustainable reforms” for two years now.

The settlement announced Friday is “the next step in its ongoing reforms,” Alford said. “This plan will guide the Department’s efforts to contribute to improve services for children.”

Lawyers negotiating for the state included Becky Laffitte and Butch Bowers of Columbia.

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