COLUMBIA - Two coroners sat before a Senate panel on Wednesday and accused the Department of Social Services of failing children in South Carolina.

They detailed horrific incidents of children killed while in the custody of their guardians. The coroners called for reform at the agency.

Later came former staffers of the agency - one who was fired and one who retired early. Each one had a different story, but the message was the same: under the policies of Director Lillian Koller's administration, kids are dying.

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said Thursday in a phone interview that she believes change is necessary at DSS - and it must start with transparency. If DSS staffers were more open about how a worker handled a case, maybe some factors could be identified to prevent another child's death, Wooten said.

"Technically we're sort of the end of the line, but we can make a difference," said Wooten, while calling for transparency with the agency's records. "We can't see what the problems are when there's no accountability."

The Senate panel has been trying to pinpoint for months what's going on at DSS. The faces of the members on the panel morphed as testimony from officials continued Wednesday. It led to calls from two senators for Koller to step down or be fired.

"I'm about to blow a gasket right now," said Sen. Joel Lourie while listening to testimony. "I'm troubled beyond words."

Changing the law

Change the names, change the faces, change the dates, but the problem is still similar, Wooten said to the senators.

With every case, Wooten has to nearly pry information from DSS when her office is handling a child death investigation, she later added. If she doesn't ask "just the right question," the agency doesn't volunteer information.

"It's sort of like when you take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Wooten said. "They don't tell the whole truth."

DSS Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said the agency wants to be more transparent, but South Carolina law prevents them from releasing information to coroners and medical examiners. She added the agency wants to release as much information as needed to ensure successful prosecution.

DSS officials said - together with Gov. Nikki Haley's office, and working Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken - that they have drafted a law that would allow the agency to discuss unfounded cases. Currently, if a family makes a claim against DSS in public, the agency can't respond to clarify or dispute the claim.

If the bill becomes law, DSS won't be allowed to volunteer information of an unfounded case to the media. But it will be able to address allegations made against the agency, officials said.

"Protecting our children is a team effort that requires transparent and open communication and that is what this legislation works to improve," said Doug Mayer, Haley spokesman. "There is nothing more important than the welfare of our children and this is a critical part of meeting that responsibility."

In the meantime, Wooten has subpoena power. And when DSS isn't forthcoming, she said she invokes it. But it shouldn't be that big of a fight, she said. That's why she believes the legislature should look into laws that hold those in charge of the safety of children accountable.

"As long as we don't have laws that mandate certain behaviors, they're not going to happen," she said. "If you don't ever have anyone being held accountable then nothing changes."

More accountability

Issues at DSS have caught the attention of other lawmakers as well. Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, pre-filed a bill in December dubbed the "Department of Child and Family Services Act," in an effort to hold staffers at the agency accountable when a child dies.

The bill calls for an oversight commission. It would also consolidate child services under one agency. Horne believes the move is necessary because state child welfare agencies are not communicating well with each other.

"I have grave concerns about how these cases are being handled," Horne said. "There is absolutely no accountability. DSS needs to be held accountable."

Horne cautioned she does not believe caseworkers are to blame. Workers are pressured to keep case numbers down; it's all a numbers-driven game, she said.

"You can't tell me we've eradicated child abuse in South Carolina," Horne added.

More than 3,000 employees work at DSS. Of that number, 990 are on-the-ground, "human service workers," up from around 800 in June, according to Hanak-Coulter. She said each of those human service workers has an average of six cases, though a former county-level director of the agency said last week that he's heard reports that number was as high as 70.

She added that DSS also has been increasing accountability within the department. Whether someone is held accountable hinges on what an investigation reveals, she said.

"We cannot say that what they did or didn't do caused a child to die," Hanak-Coulter said. "If we find that someone did something that wasn't following policy or procedure then there are ways that we deal with that through our human resources process."

Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who called for the resignation of Koller last said he believes several changes should be made to the agency's policies to help protect children. But he added he doesn't believe it can happen with Koller at the helm.

"I'm convinced the ship has run adrift," Lourie said. "I'm absolutely convinced we have the wrong person running the agency. The only way to salvage that agency is to get new leadership."

During Wednesday's hearing, Lourie voiced frustration because Koller did not make herself available for testimony. Koller has been on medical leave since December, but 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.

Under doctor's orders, Koller has to "moderate" her activities until she is released to full duty, said Marilyn Matheus, DSS spokeswoman. Koller is working on lowering and stabilizing her blood pressure, as she recovers from a stroke.

Mayer confirmed Koller may be available to stand before the committee by the next hearing, which is in two weeks. Lourie said he welcomes her appearance, because he and the rest of the panel "have a lot of questions."

"This issue is not going to go away," Lourie said. "I think we have a responsibility to the vulnerable children of South Carolina to speak for them. When you've got preventable tragedies happening, then we're going to scream and holler for a change."

Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.