- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - State social workers seeking the mother of a 5-month-old child who died last week from an unmonitored heart condition waited weeks before contacting a medical professional who had raised concerns about the child’s safety, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday.

The state Department of Social Services has said its workers tried to find the child and his family five times but they moved often and couldn’t be found.

However, Lott told a news conference the medical worker, who had reported concerns to DSS on March 3, was in contact with the mother several times during that period and also had her phone number and address.

“I wish they would have done more. We might have a child that is still alive,” Lott said.

The baby’s mother, 29-year-old Jennifer Coles, has been charged with unlawful neglect of a child, and the sheriff said there is a strong probability those charges will be upgraded as his investigators review the boy’s medical records. Coles did not have a lawyer at her bond hearing Wednesday.

The baby was born prematurely and a doctor told his mother he needed a monitor that would check his heart rate and breathing and sound an alarm if they slowed too much, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.

The sheriff said a medical worker contacted state officials on March 3 to say that monitor was almost never used.

When the child stopped breathing and died while in a car with a family friend on April 22, the monitor was in the trunk under clothes, Lott said.

Lott also said his deputies found Coles quickly once they had a reason to find her. He said his deputies are happy to help any time DSS calls.

“We need to do everything to protect these children who cannot speak for themselves,” the sheriff said.

The Department of Social Services has been criticized by Republican and Democratic lawmakers this year for focusing too much on numbers and not enough on helping children. Several state senators, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen, have called for DSS Director Lillian Koller to resign. Koller has refused, saying she thinks she is doing a good job and has much more she wants to accomplish.

Koller also told a Senate committee reviewing DSS that if her resignation would save even one child’s life, she would step aside.

Koller released a statement Wednesday detailing her department’s efforts to find the family at night and on weekends.

“Despite the very best efforts of DSS, there are tragic cases where the system as a whole is not able to prevent a child from being harmed by their own parents,” Koller said.

She said that, effective immediately, DSS is requiring that if staff cannot locate a child or family within 72 hours, they must contact law enforcement for assistance.

After Sheheen mentioned the case Tuesday, DSS released a statement.

“The thousands of dedicated employees at the Department of Social Services work hard every day to protect children who are in some of the worst imaginable circumstances, and they succeed in serving and protecting thousands of children,” the statement said. “There are a small number of tragic cases in which their best efforts do not succeed, as in this case where we could not locate Baby Webb and his apparently transient family? after repeated attempts.”

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