COLUMBIA - A state Senator said the Department Social Services is in "complete meltdown" and called on the governor Tuesday to remove the head of the agency.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, has repeatedly called for DSS director Lillian Koller to resign. But after Koller declined to do so last week, Lourie said it was time to ask Gov. Nikki Haley to remove Koller from her post.
DSS disputes Sen. Joel Lourie's figures (with the department's response)
Cases not seen within 24 hours of initial report
Berkeley County: 52 percent
Charleston County: 32 percent
Dorchester County: 43 percent
State: 46 percent
DSS response: Lourie's claim confuses intake with investigations. More than 95 percent of cases are seen within 24 hours.
Children not seen on a monthly basis
Berkeley County: 30 percent
Charleston County: 13 percent
Dorchester County: 5 percent
State: 21 percent
DSS response: More than 90% of the children in open foster care cases are seen by DSS caseworkers at least once a month.
Cases older than 45 days
Berkeley County: 0
Charleston County: 2
Dorchester County: 3
DSS response: Annual data in DSS' March 2014 report confirms 96.1% of investigations were completed timely. When Director Koller began at DSS, there were nearly 25,000 investigations pending more than 60 days in the system.
Numbers source: Sen. Joel Lourie
DSS responses provided by agency spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus
"When those of us that have a voice fail to speak out when children are put in harm's way, we're in the wrong job," said Lourie at a Tuesday news conference. "So, Gov. Haley I'm calling on you. The people of South Carolina have trusted you to do the right thing, governor. Your failure to remove the director is a complete violation of trust that the people have given you and it's time for you, governor, to take action."
After the news conference, Koller responded through a written statement, saying she has worked hard to improve the safety and well-being of the state's children from the day she started in her role.
"While there are always things we need to improve upon, we have also made great strides in many critical areas," said Koller in the statement. "I do not intend to let politics or any personal agenda impede this agency's continued progress in making the lives of children and families in South Carolina better."
Armed with statistics Lourie said were compiled from numbers provided by DSS, Lourie showed how he believes the agency is failing. But DSS countered that Lourie's numbers are incorrect or "taken completely out of context."
Lourie noted, for example, a discrepancy in child fatality cases. Koller and her staff have told the Senate's DSS Oversight Subcommittee there has been a 25 percent decline in child fatalities with DSS involvement; numbers have dipped from 101 cases in 2010 to 76 cases in 2013. Lourie said, however, that the number of child deaths each year since 2011 has been constant at 67.
The discrepancy in numbers can be attributed to who is counting and how. Lourie's numbers were produced by the state's Child Fatality Advisory Committee.
Lourie added the agency has failed to conduct a performance audit of at least seven counties for five years or more as required by state law. DSS officials said, however, that all counties have current reviews and the agency is in compliance with the law.
Further, DSS Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said the agency is working on compiling additional department data to hand over to the subcommittee; its next meeting has not been announced. Hanak-Coulter also clarified that "initial contact" can be done through face-to-face meetings, by dispatching law enforcement or by contacting the person who reported the incident.
Haley's spokesman Doug Mayer said in a written statement after the news conference that the governor is proud of Koller and the work DSS does every day to protect the children and families of the state.
"Senator Lourie can call for Director Koller's resignation every day until the November election if he wants, since his motivation is so obviously political, but it won't change these facts: under her leadership child deaths are down 25 percent, adoptions are up 11 percent, and DSS has provided more services statewide than ever before," Mayer said.
Before Mayer made his statement, however, Lourie said at the Statehouse his concern with DSS goes far beyond politics, adding "it's about doing the right thing."
"I think when you deal with the safety of children, politics has no place in it," Lourie said. "People can make politics out of it all they want to, but for me it's about protecting children."
Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.