Columbia, SC (WLTX) -- Two State Senators want the head of the Department of Social Services to step down.
Senators Joel Lourie and Vincent Sheheen have called for DSS Director Lillian Koller to resign or be fired.
The agency has come under fire with reports of children in their custody dying. Former employees say there is high turnover with staff fearing for their jobs.
"I just think that overall the atmosphere in the agency of one of not doing what we used to do, which is focus on kids, and turning that focus entirely to numbers," said Former DSS Deputy Director Linda Martin at a hearing Wednesday.
She spent 36 years working for children and families with DSS. Last year, she was terminated, and now she is speaking out about conditions at the agency.
"It's very hard to see something like that be taken apart and driven into the ground and I'm very afraid that's what happening now," said Martin.
She will not speculate on why she was let go, but did speak before a Senate oversight subcommittee about her concerns. Coroners from Richland and Charleston counties appeared as well speaking about child deaths connected to DSS. Corners Gary Watts of Richland County and Rae Wooten of Charleston County expressed concern about a lack of information from DSS during their investigations into child deaths.
Watts told senators he had been contacted by DSS days before the senate meeting. He says the agency had never reached out to him before.
DSS said it wanted to speak with Watts about changes it had made, a pending legal case and a separate community event on safe sleeping for children.
Former Employee Allen Carter, used to head up Richland County's DSS office. He told senators he retired three years earlier than planned in 2012 because he did not like the way the agency was heading.
Cater said DSS had a management style of fear and intimidation, saying he was screamed at and called a liar prior to his departure.
He and Martin spoke about the pressure put on employees to meet WIGs, or Wildly Important Goals, or risk consequences. Carter said those WIGS may have put children in dangerous situations, something DSS disputes.
"I don't operate that way. I ask the staff what it is I can do to support them to continue to do the work the right way," said Jessica Hanak-Coulter, DSS Deputy State Director of Human Services.
She says some comments made during the meeting, like numbers given to senators were inaccurate. She said the agency was working with lawmakers to help them better serve families.
Koller was notably missing from the meeting. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Tom Young says medical issues have kept her from attending this or any other meeting they have had so far.
"I've made it very clear that this subcommittee will hear from her when she is medically cleared and she's personally told me that she intends to come testify, but I can tell you, that anyone who thinks this subcommittee is gonna go away and fold our tent is sadly mistaken," said Young.
Lourie says there are terrible problems at the agency whose sole existence is to protect vulnerable people and they have failed.
"I see no other way forward but to remove the director, absolutely. I think she should resign, I think it's time for new leadership. They've run this agency into the ground and we've got to start rebuilding it," said Lourie.
Koller had led DSS since February 2011. Before Governor Haley tapper her to run the agency, she served as Director of Hawaii's Department of Human Services since 2003.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Haley, responded to the meeting and calls for Koller's resignation.
"There is nothing more important than the welfare of our children and under Director Koller's watch child deaths have decreased 25 percent, adoptions have increased 11 percent, and we have successfully moved over 20,000 people from welfare to work," Mayer said. "Governor Haley has and will continue to support her efforts to protect and better the lives of South Carolina families and children."
WLTX tried to get a comment from Koller, but her office referred us instead to the statement from Gov. Haley's office.