Columbia, SC (WLTX) - When the South Carolina Department of Social Services accepts a case for investigation, state law requires it to begin that investigation within 24 hours.
News19 learned about the law, and it's importance to child safety, after an investigation earlier this year into the death of Robert Guinyard Jr., a Richland County boy who died despite multiple reports of abuse to DSS.
Previous Coverage:Robert Guinyard Death
"I think your story was kind of the wedge the opened the very locked down department of social services to show the public what was actually going on with the agency," said Linda Martin, a former state DSS Deputy State Director. After 36 years with DSS, Martin was fired in September 2013.
The agency charged with looking out for vulnerable children in our state is one of South Carolina's largest agencies. It has more than 4,000 employees and a $1.2 billion budget, according to the DSS website.
Our investigation worked to uncover, with all the resources, how Robert died and how hundreds of other kids like him would not be seen by caseworkers in the 24 hour limit outlined in state statute.
Guinyard's case was not initially referred to a DSS investigator. For cases that are, reports show DSS dropped the ball in hundreds of cases failing to comply with a state law DSS also includes in its policy manual.
"The 24 hour rule requires that if someone calls into the agency to report abuse or neglect, and that report is accepted for investigation that is it is not screened out but accepted for investigation, contact must be made with the child within 24 hours," Martin said.
The state law specifically says the following: within 24 hours of a receipt of a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, the department must begin an appropriate and through investigation.
"That's a very very important rule because if you have a child in danger, a child whose being abused, whose being severely neglected, you don't want to let that go on for more than the absolute minimum," Martin said. "You don't want a child to go 3,4,5 days without an intervention."
A stack of confidential 'push reports' indicate cases accepted for investigation by DSS and that in some weeks in 2013, DSS county offices did not see even half of the people associated with those cases within 24 hours.
News19 spent weeks combing through the stack of reports to find the trend continues in 2014.
These are the percentage of people not seen in 24 hours for DSS cases in January 2014:
Richland County - 64.83%
Lexington County - 50%
Newberry County - 30.14%
Kershaw County - 37.5%
Saluda County - 6.45%
Calhoun County - 19.05%
Orangeburg County - 19.35%
Fairfield County - 16.67%
Sumter County - 33.58%
Lee County - 15%
Clarendon County - 21.21%
"When I saw that, one question I asked was, 'Were there increasing fatalities of injuries?' The answer there was no," said DSS Director Lillian Koller.
Director Koller testified last week before the senate subcommitee investigating her agency.
"We're here because we think there's a problem," said Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) who serves on the subcommittee.
Koller contends the push reports are inaccurate because, she says, caseworkers sometimes update the database days after they've seen people in a case.
Lourie challenged the reports' accuracy a second time in a press conference this week, where he suggested the agency isn't following state law.
In response, DSS says more than 95% of referrals have a timely investigation within 24 hours.
News19 and the senate subcommittee have asked for data to support that claim. It has not been provided.
"We've either got a law that means nothing and we need to look and see whether or not it's appropriate, or we have a law that's totally being violated and we may have children in danger," said Sue Berkowitz of Appleseed Legal Justice.
DSS insiders and Berkowitz agree it's unfair to expect case workers to find everyone within 24 hours, but say leaving 50% and 60% of the people not seen in 24 hours points to a management failure.
"This is one of the most important parts of serving the state for child welfare in getting out there and being the watch dog continuing to make sure children aren't being abused," Martin said. "That is just completely unacceptable. It puts children in far too much danger and is not something that can be allowed to continue."