- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Two state senators usually on the opposite end of most issues are joining together to investigate what they say appear to be major problems at the South Carolina agency that handles the welfare of children and families.

Sens. Katrina Shealy and Joel Lourie are part of a subcommittee that heard Wednesday about an alarming number of child deaths where the Department of Social Service was already involved. The lawmakers also heard about a system of goals that encourages social workers to keep children out of or remove them from foster care even if it isn’t the best thing to do.

Several caregivers also told heart-wrenching stories about DSS removing children without a proper investigation.

Shealy said the stories shared at the hearing were just a small portion of what she has heard since announcing she wanted to take a deep look at DSS. She said the problems appear to be from case workers up to high level administrators.

“Somebody is not doing their job and they aren’t looking at these cases,” the Lexington Republican said.

DSS officials plan to respond at length when the subcommittee meets again next Wednesday. They issued a short statement after the hearing pointing out total child deaths in the state have declined over the past three years.

“Our work at DSS is never done and we look forward to continuing the conversation about doing everything possible individually and collectively to safeguard our children,” agency spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said.

Columbia Democrat Lourie said he will wait until he hears from DSS officials before deciding what needs to be done.

“I walk out of here after hearing these stories even more concerned than when we started,” he said.

Senators heard testimony that DSS was involved with either the children or siblings of 58 of the 157 unexpected deaths of children the State Law Enforcement Division investigated in 2013. In 2009, DSS was involved in 73 of the 214 child deaths.

Several people who work with social workers and case managers said DSS has put in a system called “wildly important goals” that encourages employees to keep caseloads down and children out of the foster system whether they need to be there or not.

“There has to be some subjectivity, using experience and not just a checklist,” said Sue Berkowitz of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

The goals deeply bothered both Lourie and Shealy.

“They are talking about wildly important goals. Let’s get the numbers down?” Shealy said. “These aren’t numbers. These are people.”

The senators also heard stories from two families who had children removed, then returned when a DSS investigation turned up no problems. One woman said her 5-year-old granddaughter was taken from her Lowcountry home and put into foster care after a school employee reported possible abuse. The family said DSS didn’t ask questions initially, taking the child just hours after the allegation. The girl wasn’t returned for a month after DSS determined the school employee had the wrong child.

“It’s called the Department of Social Services, but no social services are provided on any level,” said Ellen Babb, a Charleston attorney who helps defend families against the agency and represented the Lowcountry family.

Lourie asked Babb and the grandmother why the agency refused to believe a background check showing the girl’s grandparents had a clean record and instead decided to send her to a foster family.

“It’s very illogical and it happens every day,” Babb said.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

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