Politics & Government

Pick to watchdog SC’s child-welfare agency worked there for years, raising questions

New DSS director looking forward to working with SC families

SC Gov. Henry McMaster has nominated Michael Leach, 39, to be the next director of the state's Social Services Department. Leach’s background includes training in mental health and more than a decade at Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services.
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SC Gov. Henry McMaster has nominated Michael Leach, 39, to be the next director of the state's Social Services Department. Leach’s background includes training in mental health and more than a decade at Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s pick for the first state Child Advocate cleared a major hurdle to confirmation Monday, but not before facing questions about whether she can be an effective watchdog of the embattled child-welfare agency that employed her for 14 years.

Answering those concerns, Amanda Whittle said fighting for children’s rights has been her “ultimate” career goal.

“Any relationship I have with someone is second to doing the right thing,” she said.

The panel of state senators voted unanimously Monday, with one senator abstaining, to recommend confirming Whittle tothe position of State Child Advocate.

The General Assembly created the position last year to ensure that children receive adequate protection and care from services offered by the Department of Social Services and other state agencies.

The 47-year-old Aiken County resident has worked the last 14 years as an attorney with Social Services representing the agency in civil litigation and in adoption matters, as well as other issues. She was one of three candidates recommended to the governor by the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children.

Prior to joining Social Services, Whittle spent 10 years in private practice, mostly in Family Court, and is certified as a Child Welfare Law Specialist by the National Association of Counsel for Children.

But her ties to Social Services prompted some senators Monday to question whether Whittle would serve as an effective, independent watchdog.

State Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, said he was concerned that Whittle “coming straight from DSS is tantamount to someone from Goldman Sachs running the (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission),” and asked her to persuade him otherwise. “This is my concern, we’re appointing the fox to look after the hen house.”

Climer ultimately abstained from voting on advancing Whittle’s confirmation.

“I think if we don’t have a ... child advocate who has a high level of independence and a high level of fearlessness, then I think this will fail,” said state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, who voted to advance Whittle’s confirmation.

“I am well aware of the issues that are out there that need to be resolved,” Whittle told the senators, adding, “But at the end of the day I know there’s work that needs to be done, and that work will involve changes with DSS.”

Whittle said one of her “greatest joys” working as an attorney for Social Services has been working on a 2015 federal class-action lawsuit that said a lack of basic health care and other services endangered children while under the care of the Social Services agency.

“I was not happy about the agency being sued, but I have been very excited and hopeful about what the lawsuit can bring,” she said. “I think we need to go from a culture of blaming to a culture of collaborating,” as well as accountability and transparency, she added.

“That’s why I’m here today,” Whittle said. “And focus more on the little people than the adults.”

Whittle said representing families in cases against Social Services, while working as a family court lawyer, helped her represent Social Services better when she took that job. And representing the state will help her be a better child advocate. She wants to make the agency “a one-stop complaint shop” and resource for children and families across the state.

Whittle’s broad professional legal experience, as well as her leadership roles on the state and local level, make her well qualified to help protect the state’s children, said McMaster, who nominated Whittle for the job, and state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who chairs the committee vetting Whittle Monday.

“We need to be protecting our children. I feel like you are the right person to do this,” Shealy told Whittle.

Shealy says she expects the full Senate to confirm Whittle soon.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.
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