By Tim Smith, Greenville News
Columbia - A week after critics of the state Department of Social Services told a panel of senators how they felt the agency fell short in handling cases of child abuse and neglect, a DSS official says safe and thriving children are a top priority.
Jessica Hanak-Coulter, deputy director for human services at DSS, didn't have answers to some of the senators' questions and said she would have to research individual cases mentioned last week.
"We need to have another hearing," Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican and chairman of the panel, told The Greenville Newsafterward. "We're going to keep pressing. We've got a lot of questions. We're going to keep asking questions until we get answers."
Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican on the panel, said the agency was providing information but hadn't provided answers to the "gut-wrenching questions that we had talked about last week, which is kind of what we were wanting."
The senators also want to talk to DSS Director Lillian Koller, who suffered a stroke last year and wasn't yet ready to appear before the panel Wednesday, Hanak-Coulter said.
Wednesday's hearing was scheduled to give DSS a chance to address issues raised last week, but new issues were raised Wednesday. Among them were:
• About 50 percent of the state's 46 county DSS directors have left their jobs in the past three years. Hanak-Coulter said she wasn't sure how many of those left as a result of retirement, promotions or were asked to leave. She promised to do more research on the numbers.
Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat and member of the panel, said that number left him "disturbed."
"When you have folks with institutional knowledge of the system," he said, "anytime you get rapid turnover in an area as important as child protection, it does raise a red flag as to why that is the case. Is there too much pressure being brought to bear? Why would all these directors be turning over so quickly?"
• Over a three-month period last year, about 122 Upstate cases in which callers alleged child abuse or neglect and were referred by DSS to community-based providers for services instead of an investigation were sent back to DSS after the provider noted "severity of risk" factors following contact with the family.
DSS officials had decided before sending the cases for community services that the allegations didn't warrant investigation. Providers noticed something in each of the cases that made them feel they should be investigated.
"That tells me there was an assessment that went wrong," Lourie told Hanak-Coulter.
• About 14 percent of children removed from a home and then reunited with their families sometime within a year have been removed again, Hanak-Coulter said.
The panel also wants to know the turnover rate among caseworkers. Hanak-Coulter said the overall turnover rate for the agency is between 7 percent and 8 percent but didn't know what the rate was for caseworkers. The agency currently has 143 caseworker openings, she said.
There were also bright spots for DSS among the facts presented Wednesday, including the adoptions of 1,798 children since 2011 - a 50 percent increase - and a reduction in the number of older foster children who choose to leave their families once they turn 18.
And face-to-face visits of at least once a month with children in family preservation cases have increased from 84 percent in 2011 to about 95 percent currently, Hanak-Coulter said.
Lourie said the panel was pleased to hear those facts and wasn't on a witch hunt. He said senators want to improve the system to achieve the same goals as DSS officials have.
Hanak-Coulter said the process for processing allegations of child abuse and neglect have changed so that those cases that aren't investigated at least offer services to the families involved. As a result, she said, the number of cases in which DSS takes no action after receiving an allegation have dropped from 38 percent to 18 percent.
Critics last week said the new system may provide more services to families but far fewer allegations are being investigated.
Hanak-Coulter countered that 55 percent of the investigations now are founded, compared to 36 percent before.
Senators asked her about cases discussed last week, including one in which a baby was born in a toilet and both the child and mother tested positive for drugs but wasn't investigated by DSS, and another in which a teen in a foster home complained to a guardian that he was only given a bag of Ramen noodles a day to eat and his foster mom said she didn't receive enough foster care money to buy him more.
The director of a guardian program said DSS said it wouldn't investigate the noodles case because the mom was providing at least some food.
Hanak-Coulter said she would research both cases, as well as another in which a foster mom allegedly was keeping infants in sweater boxes.
The case of a Lowcountry family involving a 5-year-old girl who was removed from her home for a month based upon something a teacher heard on the school playground may not be discussed with DSS because the law prohibits such discussion since the case was unfounded, Young said.
After the hearing, Koller issued a statement addressing the issue of not being able to publicly discuss individual cases.
"We are dedicated to providing the best and most responsive care for children and families across South Carolina and welcome any legislative oversight and input from the community to help achieve these goals," she said.
"In an effort to make this process as transparent as possible, while still protecting the privacy and rights of the victims, we look forward to working with the General Assembly to reform any laws currently preventing a more complete and appropriate disclosure of the facts."
In other testimony, Capt. Michael Greene, who heads the special victims unit for the State Law Enforcement Division, said he has five investigators with a sixth on the way to probe about 200 child fatality cases a year.
He said his unit could use more manpower, which he said would allow SLED to send investigators more often to the scene of a child's death.
Asked about reports that some coroners don't always send in child fatality cases to SLED, he said, "From what I understand, there is not a lot of consistency in that area."