Abused children should not always be reunited with their families, child advocates Monday told a state Senate panel tasked with overseeing the embattled S.C. Department of Social Services.
The Senate panel will consider that recommendation when drafting a proposal to the General Assembly on how fix the agency, which has been criticized for failing to protect the state’s children. State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said he hopes to have the proposal ready on the first day of the legislative session in January.
Many times, the goal of Social Services is reuniting a family, the Rev. Randy Harling, president of Connie Maxwell Children’s Home, told senators. But a family might not have existed in the first place, he said.
“It’s just not always very realistic to think that every family is always going to be able to care for the children,” said Gayle Lofgren, director of the Child Advocacy Center of Aiken.
Berkeley County guardian ad litem Carlene Sessions said there also needs to be a closer look at kinship care, which is when children are sent to live with relatives.
For example, most grandparents on a certain socioeconomic level don’t have enough money or energy to take care of children, she said.
Harling, the former pastor at Simpsonville First Baptist Church, also said more autonomy at county Social Services departments would be an improvement.
County directors are intelligent, highly qualified people, he said, adding there has been a high turnover rate among directors, partly because of mandates from Columbia.
County directors need to be in the field, managing and directing staff and enlisting foster parents, not in Columbia in meetings, he said.
Harling also said the agency’s new director, whom Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has yet to appoint since former director Lillian Koller resigned in June, needs to have experience, compassion, intellect, a common-sense approach and leadership ability.
In their testimony Monday, guardian ad litems criticized the lack of communication from Social Services caseworkers.
“If DSS was really smart, they would make best friends with the guardian and tap their brain for everything they know,” said Sessions, who has been a guardian ad litem for 18 years.
She said she emails caseworkers when she is told information by a child’s parents. “I wish that were a two-way street because I rarely get things from DSS that they’ve gotten.”
Sessions also said guardian ad litems should have more legal authority in court.
State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, agreed, saying the child is the most unrepresented person in the courtroom in Social Services hearings.
“The child has no representative and, to me, the guardian ad litem is the person closest to the child,” Shealy said
Young, who is chairman of the panel, said he was hearing loud and clear that a significant communication issue exists.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the ball is being dropped.
“These are not statistical widgets we’re talking about – these are kids.”