COLUMBIA - The embattled director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services spent her Wednesday morning fending off criticism and allegations made against her administration during past several months.
Director Lillian Koller testified about reports of shortfalls at the agency by current and former staffers, and about coroners and families who have said the system has failed the children of South Carolina. The problems have come to light during a series of hearings held by the Senate's DSS Oversight Subcommittee since last fall.
This is the first time Koller has appeared before the subcommittee to talk about the allegations that have at least two senators calling for her resignation. She has been on medical leave since December, following a stroke.
After the hearing, Koller said she has no intention of stepping down as the chief of the agency, despite repeated calls by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, for her to do so.
"If I thought that my resignation would save the life of even one child, the governor would have my resignation," Koller said. "So, I respectfully decline to resign. I think the governor's got the right team here. I think that we are working together very well."
Following the hearing, Gov. Nikki Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said in a written statement Koller showed on Wednesday why the governor appointed her to the position in the first place.
"She is a committed advocate for South Carolina's children, and someone who has overseen dramatic improvement in an agency that deals with some of the toughest, most tragic situations in our state," said Mayer of Koller. "Governor Haley is proud of Director Koller, the staff at DSS, and the changes they have made, changes that have resulted in a decrease in child fatalities, an increase in adoptions, and the ability to provide more services to children and families statewide than ever before."
During Wednesday's hearing, Koller addressed the deaths of two children in the past year that have been cited at several of the panel's meetings, including that of 4-year-old Robert Guinyard, of Richland County. She said several agencies were involved with the child and that DSS workers filed twice to have parental rights terminated from the boy's parents, but a judge did not find sufficient cause to do so.
She also advocated for requiring registered day care centers that violate occupancy rates to become licensed or be shut down after a complaint is proven accurate. Koller added there are several areas where the agency needs to improve, but stressed much improvement has already taken place since she became the head of the agency.
"Even when our DSS workers do not make mistakes. tragic outcomes can still result," Koller said. "I assure that these cases break the hearts of our DSS workers. We want to be perfect and we want to get it right every single time."
She could not provide answers to several questions asked by Senators Tom Young, R-Aiken, and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, but said she would make the answers available once she accesses the data.
Koller was told by Shealy she has received information from caseworkers who report their case load average is 45 to 50, a number that contradicts the average caseload number the agency has been reporting to the panel: six.
"This is a problem all over the state where people feel that they are overworked," Shealy said.
After the hearing, Shealy said she receives emails daily from current DSS staff and families beyond her district asking for help. Shealy added it's almost like they're running a small DSS office. When asked if she believes it's time for Koller to step down as director, Shealy said the decision has to be looked at "seriously."
"I've been turning that corner for several weeks now, several months since January," Shealy said. "I think that we're at a point now that we have to make a decision."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.