- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Testimony about a 4-year-old Richland County boy who was beaten to death after being returned to his parents from foster care prompted two Democratic senators Wednesday to urge the ouster of the Department of Social Services‘ director.

Director Lillian Koller needs to step down, said Sen. Joel Lourie, who sits on a Senate panel investigating potential problems at the agency.

“I’m about to blow a complete gasket right now,” said Lourie, D-Columbia, after hearing Richland County Coroner Gary Watts describe the case of Robert Guinyard Jr. “There are alarms and sirens going off on this case.” He called it “a wake-up call that there is complete dysfunction in this agency.”

The panel, which began meeting in January, also heard Wednesday from Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten and two of the agency’s former administrators.

After the meeting, Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter disputed their allegations that Koller’s emphasis on meeting “wildly important goals” results in decisions that put numbers ahead of what’s best for children and creates low morale among employees. She acknowledged mistakes in Robert’s case but said the agency overall is moving in the right direction.

“The decisions made in that case would not be made today,” Hanak-Coulter said. “There are a lot of things we’d do differently today.”

While half of the agency’s 46 county directors have left in the last three years, she said, no one’s lost a job for missing a “wildly important goal.”

“Yes, we use WIGs. We do that because it’s the right work, not because of the pressure,” she said.

Koller’s “wildly important goals,” a management method for meeting priorities, include increasing “positive permanency” - children being adopted or returned to their biological families. It involves setting specific benchmarks for each county and reviewing their progress weekly.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Gov. Nikki Haley’s expected opponent in November, also called on Haley to fire Koller, a director in her Cabinet. Sheheen, D-Camden doesn’t sit on the subcommittee but sent out an email afterward.

But Haley is standing behind Koller’s leadership. Her spokesman cited numbers showing a decrease in deaths, increase in adoptions and more people moving from welfare to work since Koller took the agency’s helm in 2011.

“There is nothing more important than the welfare of our children,” Doug Mayer said. “Gov. Haley has and will continue to support her efforts to protect and better the lives of South Carolina families and children.”

Watts, also chairman of Richland County’s Child Fatality Review Board, said Robert should never have been returned home.

Potential abuse to Robert or his older siblings was reported to DSS 15 times between 2006 and 2013 - seven of those reports about Robert specifically. He was beaten to death after his mother returned home with a newborn, Watts said: He’d been beaten, bitten and had broken bones. Both parents have been charged.

“What blows my mind is, these were not acute injuries. It didn’t just happen,” he said, citing evidence of healed fractures in the boy’s arm and ribs that correspond to reports of abuse months earlier by family members and a pediatrician. Repeatedly, he said, DSS referred his case to an outside contractor for family support services that didn’t follow up.

“I cannot for the life of me excuse whatever bureaucratic paperwork processes are in place to put our children in harm’s way,” Watts said.

Wooten said there’s a lack of common sense in DSS decision-making. She told senators about a 2-year-old who died last March, several months after being returned to his biological mother. An autopsy revealed multiple fractures.

“He was a safe child until he was returned to the home,” said Wooten, who’s been coroner for eight years and in the office since 1995. While she’s had various issues with DSS over the years, she said, “It seems in the last two years or so we’ve had a lot of glaring cases.”

Lourie complained that Koller has yet to testify before the subcommittee, despite several requests that she appear. Agency spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said she had a stroke in December and is obeying doctor’s orders.

Koller must moderate her activities until released to full duty,” she said. “Due to her medical conditions she is working on lowering and stabilizing her blood pressure as she recovers.”

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