South Carolina DSS tries to sort out multiple problems
BY PRENTISS FINDLAY and STEPHEN LARGEN
Overall Budget Trend
2007-08: $1.2 billion
2008-09 $1.3 billion
2009-10 $1.3 billion
2010-11 $1.5 billion
2011-12 $1.7 billion
2012-13 $2.1 billion
Current budget includes $1.9 billion in federal funds, mostly for the food stamp and supplemental nutrition assistance programs.
State General Fund Appropriations
Source: State Budget and Control Board and DSS
Open child protective services cases
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Berkeley County 260 256 249 232 177
Charleston County 603 618 518 430 427
Dorchester County 122 94 81 169 153
Statewide 5,408 4,976 4,991 4,455 4,704
Each case represents a family, including one or more children, that was receiving in-home services at the end of the state fiscal year in an attempt to prevent the children from being removed from the home and placed in foster care.
Human services caseworkers
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Berkeley County 45 48 44 42 34
Charleston County 90 93 88 73 64
Dorchester County 23 24 23 20 20
Statewide 1,345 1,451 1,394 1,251 1,121
Data for 2012 incomplete
DSS suspected child abuse and/or neglect cases involving families (July 1-June 30):
2004-05 2007-08 2009-10 2011-12
Investigations 17,186 18,560 18,801 15,803
Substantiated 6,140 7,216 6,952 6,897
Source: Department of Social Services
The Walterboro man said he pleaded with the Beaufort County Department of Social Services to take his daughter out of a home next to the residence of a man charged with molesting her.
A DSS official agreed that the toddler would be better off with her father, but the problem was a lack of evidence to support removing her from the residence where she lived with her mother.
The man said he and the mother never married and they lived separately before and after the girl was born.
A caseworker noted that the home was clean and there was plenty of food, the father said.
“I am a taxpayer. This is my tax money at work?” he said.
In frustration, he hired a lawyer, and eight months later a judge awarded him temporary custody of his daughter. But the $17,000 in legal fees left him heavily in debt.
He went back to DSS to discuss the situation but was told they were no longer involved because he had hired an attorney to handle the case, he said. A firefighter injured on the job, he is considering becoming a social worker to try to improve the child welfare system.
The Post and Courier does not name alleged victims of sex crimes or their family members.
DSS declined to discuss the situation or any other cases involving children, citing privacy laws.
The Legislative Audit Council recently approved an audit of DSS at the request of State Rep. Jenny Horne and 32 other members of the State House Republican Caucus.
Horne, a Summerville Republican, said she has heard complaints about the agency for months. She organized a “stakeholder” meeting in August that included DSS, health care professionals and law enforcement officials. The gathering resulted in a new Dorchester County DSS director, Tim Nix, being appointed.
Problems identified in the meeting included the timeliness of DSS response to complaints about child welfare and delayed court proceedings because department paperwork was not in order, she said.
“They were wasting a lot of court time,” she said.
In one case, parental rights had been terminated three years ago but the order had not been enforced, she said. In another case, Horne said a girl was abused for more than a year after she was placed in a Dorchester County home where a registered sex offender lived — “the most egregious example of an error that can occur,” she said.
Although Horne has openly criticized DSS, she said department officials have willingly met with her in Dorchester County and Columbia to discuss her concerns.
“In all fairness to them (DSS), they have been nothing but responsive to me,” she said.
Horne said she plans to introduce legislation in this session of the General Assembly to overhaul DSS and create a state Children’s Bureau, though she did not prefile legislation to that effect.
DSS has too many managers and not enough qualified caseworkers dealing with children’s issues, she said.
“It’s time to restructure because this clearly is not working,” Horne said.
Nix said he applied for the Dorchester County DSS job after attending the stakeholders’ meeting in August because he felt that he could help the agency provide “effective accountability.” At the time, he was clinical coordinator at the Governor’s Office of Continuum of Care.
“I truly feel that the department has responded quickly to the concerns of Rep. Horne,” he said.
Nix said that he met recently with Horne for an “open dialogue” about the county DSS office. “We will always strive to improve,” he said.
He declined to discuss the county office’s problems or specify how he will improve the services provided there.
Marilyn Matheus, the agency director of media relations, said the situation at the Dorchester County DSS office that led to the stakeholders’ meeting will be addressed in the audit.
“We welcome the Legislative Audit Council’s review of our child protective services program and practices. We expect it will show the improvement of the last two years and areas where improvements are still needed,” Matheus said.
Robert Brimmer, the regional DSS director, said the agency meets or exceeds all state and federal regulations pertaining to child protective services, a condition for major funding.
“We’re always looking at how we can do better work,” he said. As for the problems at Dorchester County DSS, Brimmer said, “very quickly we took action.” He declined to discuss specifics.
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney is one of three Senate Finance Committee members who sit on a subcommittee that proposes the agency’s budget.
The Jasper Democrat said he’s very troubled by the state of DSS and supports the audit. He said the agency’s problems stem from both money and management issues.
The agency’s base budget appropriated by the Legislature was $134.8 million in July 2008. Currently, it is $119.9 million, but it has dropped as low as $109.6 million in the past four years, he said.
The money crunch has led to dramatic staff reductions, Pinckney said, which means less oversight and fewer people to provide direct services, such as child custody and child protection.
Pinckney said the public pressure created by recent reports of child abuse should help create an environment where the department’s policies will be scrutinized.
Walhalla GOP Sen. Thomas Alexander, also a member of the budget writing subcommittee, said he’s concerned the agency hasn’t asked for more money, but he’s more optimistic than Pinckney about the direction of the agency.
While there needs to be a review of the way DSS has changed its policies, he said, “some of the changes they are making may be good changes.”