COLUMBIA - A state senator on Wednesday called for the head of the Department of Social Services to step down or be fired.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said he no longer has confidence in anything DSS staffers tell a Senate oversight panel and that the agency operates "in sort of a veil of secrecy." That's why, he said, it is time for DSS Director Lillian Koller to go.
"I am 100 percent convinced that there is a need for change in leadership at the agency," Lourie said after the meeting. "We don't know where she is. If she can't come here she shouldn't be in her job."
His comments came after the coroners of Charleston and Richland counties and two former DSS staffers criticized the agency's practices and performance in testimony before the Senate panel.
Lourie said he's appalled Koller, who has been on medical leave since late last year, is still running the agency.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden - Gov. Nikki Haley's likely opponent in the November election - also took the opportunity to chime in on the issue, using social media to call for Koller to be fired.
"There is enough hidden government in South Carolina, in the Haley administration, that we don't need heads of agencies who won't come clean," said Sheheen later in the day. "If I were governor, I would have fired her (Koller) months ago."
Though Koller has been on leave, she has participated in at least one official function recently. The Post and Courier interviewed Koller in person at the governor's office on March 6 about the administration's new obesity initiative.
"There is nothing more important than the welfare of our children and under Director Koller's watch, child deaths have decreased 25 percent, adoptions have increased 11 percent, and we have successfully moved over 20,000 people from welfare to work," said Doug Mayer, Haley's spokesman. "Governor Haley has and will continue to support her efforts to protect and better the lives of South Carolina families and children."
A request to the agency for its budget and a comment on behalf of Koller was not returned Wednesday.
Lourie said the testimony he heard Wednesday, which also included comments from the president of the South Carolina Association of Early Care and Education, was the straw that broke the camel's back.
"I was livid," he said. "I was about to jump out of my chair today."
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts cited the death of 4-year-old Robert Guinyard Jr., of Richland County, whose case had been referred to DSS 15 times.
"The child should be alive today," Watts said. "We all in this state failed that child."
Lourie said he was enraged by what he heard from Watts.
The panel also heard from Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, who said her most challenging issue with DSS is transparency when performing a child death investigation. Wooten contended that DSS is hesitant to share its case files with her office.
"I find that very, very frustrating," she said. "I want to know the whole history... Every piece of that record should be transparent."
After Lourie asked Wooten if she's seen an increase in children dying lately, Wooten said that in the past two years, she's seen more "glaring" cases in which families of children killed had a history of issues.
In March 2013, for example, Wooten's office was called upon to investigate the death of 2-year-old Elijah Washington, who died from blunt force trauma to his abdomen. Eyewitnesses told police that Elijah was hit by a man who was supposed to be watching him, according to an arrest affidavit.
The boy's great-grandmother has said that prior to his death, she reported numerous bruises and marks on Elijah to DSS, including a fractured wrist and leg. She told The Post and Courier that the system failed Elijah by not intervening.
Two former DSS staffers also criticized Koller's policies, including former deputy director Linda Martin, who told the committee she was fired because Koller said she wanted to take the agency in a different direction. Former Charleston County director of DSS Frank Oakley sued the agency late last year, Koller and three former coworkers, alleging that he was wrongfully fired as well.
Former Richland County Director for DSS Allen Carter said he quit the agency because he didn't like the direction the agency was going. He said he believes the agency cares more about the numbers that show how many children are being placed in homes than their safety.
"Management style at the agency is one of fear and intimidation," Carter said. "I was told in numerous occasions that if we did not meet that goal, you don't want to find out what happens. The WIGs were the sole purpose."
WIGs are "wildly important goals," explained Jessica Hanak-Coulter, deputy director of DSS during a meeting held by the agency after the oversight panel ended theirs. She added there was a lot of information given to the panel that was inaccurate and that the agency's top priority is to place a child with a "forever family."
"I don't believe that we care more about the numbers nor do I believe the staff does," said Hanak-Coulter, adding that WIGs don't decide when a child returns home.
Marilyn Matheus, agency spokeswoman said the agency employs 990 people. Hanak-Coulter said the average number of cases per caseworker is six, though Carter disputed that and said he's heard reports that the number of cases per employee was as high as 70. Lourie was told by Carter that he has had contact with workers who say they are "totally overwhelmed."
Lourie said the panel no longer wants to hear from agency staffers, however. While on the Senate floor, he said he would issue a subpoena if necessary to have Koller come before the panel.
Before addressing the Senate, Lourie cited low morale and Koller's lack of on-the-job presence as reasons for why he believes she needs to step down.
"It's like the ship is sinking, people are screaming for help and the captain is hiding in the hull," said Lourie at the meeting. "I think the time has come for new leadership."
The Post and Courier's Lauren Sausser and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.
Linda Martin, former deputy director of DSS testifies before a senate subcommittee at the Gressette building.×
Allen Carter, former director of Richland County DSS testifies before a senate subcommittee at the Gressette building.×