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BALOG COLUMN: Department of Social Services silent following death of 2-year-old in child abuse case

When a child dies, everybody wants to find somebody to blame.

It's clear that in the case of 2-year-old Elijah Washington, the authorities blame Bryan Okeith Seabrook, who is charged with homicide by child abuse.

However, Elijah's great-grandmother Dorothy Williams blames the system, and it's easy to see why. Williams says she was given custody of Elijah almost immediately after he was born in February 2011. She cared for him until December 2012, when he was sent back to live with his mother, against Williams' wishes.

It is a complicated case, made more complicated by the fact that as usual, Department of Social Services officials remained silent, at least through Monday.

Adequate protection

DSS, and more specifically, the Child Protective Services division, has an unenviable task, to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

State Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, called for an audit of the agency after learning they placed a child in a home with a sex offender.

Perry Simpson, director of the Legislative Audit Council, said that they met with DSS in February. The audit is currently in what Simpson calls its survey phase, in which they identify the issues and gather data. They can't start right away because “we've got more audits than we've got staff to do them,” Simpson said. An audit takes between six and nine months.

The council audited Child Protective Services in 2006. One recommendation was that the Legislature change state law to require that children in Child Protective Services treatment cases be seen at least once every 30 days. A DSS response in 2009 indicated the agency agreed with that goal, but the follow-up report said that as of June 2009, only 64 percent of cases involved monthly visits to children.

It's unclear how often Elijah was seen because DSS would not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Watching and waiting

Seeing the agency's side is sort of like covering a trial in which the defendant opts to invoke 5th Amendment rights. You can't help but be suspicious, even if there's nothing necessarily wrong.

And that's unfair to the people in the field who are out there protecting children and investigating claims.

The 2006 audit noted that its caseloads were inconsistent. Some of those problems would seem to persist. Charleston County's case workers went from 90 to 64 between 2008 and 2012, but substantiated cases decreased only 4 percent statewide.

Yet DSS must be doing some things right. Otherwise, two of the agency's top officials would not have been recognized with the Casey Family Programs Leaders of Excellence Award for improvements in child welfare. The award noted that South Carolina saw a 31.6 percent reduction of children in foster care since 2009. Of course, in this particular case, keeping a child out of foster care may not have been the best choice.

Either way, DSS isn't talking. And the silence is deafening.

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