Adding accountability, oversight for S.C.'s most vulnerable

Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, has made her concerns about the state's Department of Social Services well known.

Horne pre-filed a bill, H.4409, The Department of Child and Family Services Act, that deals specifically with accountability for DSS. You can read the full text at scstatehouse.gov.

"The purpose is to have accountability and some coordination," Horne said - two things that are currently lacking.

Simply put, the various agencies responsible for child welfare in the Palmetto State aren't working together as well as they could, or should. At-risk children are often part of multiple networks and have multiple needs - mental health issues, special needs, kids who wind up in the juvenile justice system (who can also often be victims of abuse.)

"What I would like to see is a better coordination of services so that the child is getting the appropriate level of service," Horne said.

And the oversight is crucial, she added.

"We've got to have some commission that can tell DSS 'no you're wrong, that child should be in intensive foster care treatment,'" for instance. "There's got to be someone reviewing the decisions that are being made at DSS."

Too many dead children


That's as simply as Horne can put it: too many children have died, in 2013 and before, who were under the care of DSS.

One of the challenges of the lack of an oversight commission is that there's no good way to gather those numbers, she added.

One such case was the March 19 death of Elijah Washington, 2.

He died from blunt force trauma, authorities said, allegedly at the hands of a 25-year-old family friend, after family members had previously contacted the agency about suspected abuse the boy was suffering.

Three children died in Richland County in three months because of abuse or neglect; all had been involved with Social Services.

"The fatalities in South Carolina are totally out of the normal fatalities that occur in DSS custody," Horne said. "The increase in the fatalities is a concern for me. The decrease in open cases in my opinion is directly related to the fatality rate."

In other words, fewer open cases don't mean fewer cases of child abuse, and it might well mean the opposite.

"The system is failing these children time and time again," she said.

United front, common goal


The good news is that Horne has received tremendous positive feedback about the bill.

People who work in social services are contacting her, asking how they can help.

And when an audit of DSS and social services is conducted in 2014, there should be some more information available, and more clarity.

The main thing, she said, is to "put the welfare of children ahead of the objectives of an agency."

Now, the folks at DSS, particularly those in the Child Protective Services division, have an incredibly difficult job to do. So coordinating their efforts with other agencies, combined with some oversight, sounds like it could only help.

What's most encouraging is that there's support to ensure that what happened in 2013 doesn't repeat in 2014, that the state starts taking better care of its most vulnerable population.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.

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