A state official confirmed that the Department of Social Services is looking into the death of a child, after The Greenville News inquired about the investigation.

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COLUMBIA – A state official confirmed that the Department of Social Services is looking into the death of a child, after The Greenville News inquired about the investigation.

Marilyn Matheus, a spokeswoman for DSS, gave The News few details about the child or the investigation and said authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. She said the investigation began early last month, but the agency could not find the family until Friday.

"We can confirm that we started an investigation on March 3, 2014," she said Friday evening. "We were not able to locate the family despite numerous attempts until this afternoon. We are continuing our investigation. While the coroner has not, as yet, determined the cause of death, our hearts go out to everyone who knew and loved this child."

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said the child was 5 months old but he could not say more until he completes his review of records.

The death comes as lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates are scrutinizing DSS' handling of cases of child abuse and neglect.

Petition gubernatorial candidate Tom Ervin told The News last week that he would fire DSS Director Lillian Koller as his first act as governor, citing details that have spilled from months of Senate hearings about the agency.

His call for Koller's ouster follows similar calls from Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who also is running for governor; from Sen. Joel Lourie, a Democrat who sits on the Senate panel that is looking at DSS; and Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who serves on the panel with Lourie.

Gov. Nikki Haley has maintained support for Koller, whom she appointed in 2011. Her spokesman has said that child fatalities have dropped by 25 percent under Koller, adoptions have increased by 11 percent and family services have improved.

In Senate hearings, two county coroners said DSS is failing to adequately protect children, a former deputy director for the agency testified she believes numeric goal-setting has become more important than children's needs, and a former county director and a coroner said they have heard DSS workers talk of being pressured and intimidated to reach goals.

Koller has testified that child safety is her top priority and while the intake system at the agency needs improving, she would not concede the agency was breaking the law or placing goals above the safety of children.

Among the cases that senators have examined was the beating death of a 4-year-old Richland County boy who had been removed from the home and returned after a family court judge disagreed with DSS' request to remove the boy.

Koller told senators the agency mishandled the intake process in the boy's case and that eight DSS workers involved in it no longer work at the agency, some of whom were fired. But she said the workers were not responsible for the boy's death.

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