Politics & Government

Senate bill would lift veil on some SC child-abuse cases

State senators want to allow the state Department of Social Services to release details about suspected child-abuse and neglect cases that the agency decided not to investigate and report publicly when abuse cases result in children dying or being seriously injured.

Lawmakers also want to make sure coroners are reporting suspicious child deaths. Current law requires them to report but provides no oversight or enforcement tool to ensure that happens.

A bill that senators say should accomplish all goals, with a little more work, cleared a Senate panel Wednesday and is heading to the full Senate Judiciary Committee for review. The bill is part of a legislative push in the House and Senate to reform the child-protection agency.

The Senate bill has backing from members of a panel tasked with reviewing claims that Social Services has overlooked abuse cases that have led to child fatalities that critics say could have been avoided.

In four meetings, the panel heard from child advocates, foster parents, law enforcement, coroners and former Social Services employees who said child deaths are not accurately reported by county coroners and the state agency overlooked children who were abused and later died.

Senators asked the agency to respond with details about cases made public in the hearings.

“We wanted to know about those cases because we heard from the families,” said state Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, chairman of the special Social Services oversight panel.

But Social Services officials said they are barred from discussing publicly cases where they found no cause for investigation.

The bill would change that, allowing Social Services to confirm, correct or clarify information about suspected child-abuses cases that are made public by others.

Where cases have not been released publicly, Young said, the bill would allow Social Services to share that information with lawmakers in sessions that are closed to the public.

It also would require Social Services to report publicly about cases where child abuse or neglect resulted in a death or serious injury. Social Services could decide to withhold details that could endanger the child or his or her family, interfere with a criminal investigation or publicly identify the person who reported the abuse.

Social Services’ practice of referring some cases to outside groups also worries some lawmakers.

Sen. Young said he is working on another amendment that would address that practice. In the House, Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester, said she would like to see that practice outlawed after hearing of cases where Social Services referred abused children to outside agencies and the children later died.

Horne said she pushed for the Legislative Audit Council to review Social Services two years ago. “I had received too many complaints (about Social Services in Dorchester County) to ignore.”

Lawmakers expect that audit to be released soon.

Protecting S.C. children

Several legislative efforts are under way to reform the state’s embattled Department of Social Services and ensure that child deaths are reported accurately to authorities. A look at some of the proposals, including their status and sponsors:

S. 1163 – In a Senate committee. Would allow Social Services to release publicly some details about some suspected child-abuse cases, report on cases that lead to child deaths or serious injuries, and require the agency to answer lawmakers’ questions about cases. Supporters want to add “teeth” to the bill to enforce reporting of child deaths and place limits on Social Services’ practice of referring possible abuse cases outside the agency for review. Sponsor: Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken

S. 355 – In a Senate subcommittee. Would add House and Senate members to an existing statewide committee that reviews child fatalities. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg

H. 4409 – In a House committee. Would create a “Department of Child and Family Services” to consolidate state child-protection services and hear grievances. Sponsor: Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Dorchester

H. 3024 – Passed House last year; before Senate subcommittee. Would expand the list of people required to report child abuse to state officials. Sponsor: Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston

S. 3102 – Passed House last year; before Senate subcommittee. Called “Jaidon’s Law” – for a toddler who died of a drug overdose after being taken from his foster parents and returned to his biological parents – the bill would require drug testing of parents if they lose custody of their children because of drug use, and direct judges to consider those test results in deciding custody. Sponsor: Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg