- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Department of Social Services has agreed to lower social workers’ caseloads of abused and neglected children, put fewer children in institutions and do a better job investigating abuse allegations, according to a settlement filed in federal court Friday.

The agreement potentially ends a lawsuit that accused the agency of endangering the nearly 3,400 children in its care. A federal judge in Charleston must approve it.

The proposed, “life-changing” improvements mean a brighter future for the state’s most vulnerable children, said Sue Berkowitz, director of Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which filed the lawsuit in January 2015 along with the New York-based watchdog group Children’s Rights.

“We’d heard so many horrifying life events happen to children, we felt the lawsuit was critical,” Berkowitz said.

Under the settlement, the agency promises to offer more face-to-face visits between caseworkers and children; keep siblings together unless that would be unsafe; provide better health care; and lessen the times children are moved from one foster home to another. Investigations must start within 24 hours of abuse being reported, must include meeting the victim in-person and must be completed within three months - most of them sooner.

The agency must stop placing children in hotels and office buildings for overnight stays. It can no longer keep kids in juvenile jail beyond their sentence just because the agency has nowhere to put them. And children under 7 can’t be placed in institutional group homes or shelters.

The issues addressed by the settlement have been scrutinized by state legislators since January 2014.

The agency’s previous director, Lillian Koller, resigned later that year on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate, following hearings that focused on children’s deaths and high caseloads that exceeded 100 children for some social workers.

Director Susan Alford, who took the helm in February 2015, said signing the settlement represents the next step in the agency’s ongoing reforms.

“This plan will guide the department’s efforts to continue to improve services for children, and we are grateful to our partners across the state who will work in tandem with us to achieve the outcomes our children deserve,” she said in a prepared statement.

The budget that legislators passed in June 2015 provided DSS money to add 177 caseworkers and 67 caseworker assistants.

Responding to the settlement, the agency said that between January 2015 and March 2016 it reduced by nearly half the number of caseworkers responsible for 50 or more children, and fewer employees quit.

In February, senators were told that 73 caseworkers still had caseloads of more than 50 children. The goal of having one social worker for every 24 children, set in 2014, had been met in only seven of the state’s 46 counties. A DSS spokeswoman did not immediately provide an update Friday.

The budget that legislators sent Gov. Nikki Haley this week provides DSS the additional $5.6 million Alford requested for more caseworkers.

“There is nothing more important than the safety of our children and our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those under the care of DSS. … We remain focused on strengthening DSS,” said Haley, who for months had refused legislators’ calls to fire Koller.

Koller had repeatedly told legislators DSS didn’t need any additional money, despite deep cuts amid the recession, and insisted that caseworkers were responsible on average for only six cases.

The settlement appoints two people to monitor whether DSS is meeting improvement goals and issue reports.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said the Senate’s DSS oversight panel, which she sits on, will also continue its role.

“What we have to make sure of is that they’re not afraid to ask for what they need,” she said. “We’re going to be the ones to make sure they have the money, and that they’re using the money we allocate to them wisely.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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