COLUMBIA - Gov. Nikki Haley is taking a hands-on approach with the Department of Social Services, implementing changes on a local level, which might lead to statewide modifications in the future.
Haley said Tuesday changes are needed at the Richland County DSS office following a case in April in which an infant died while a DSS staffer was searching for his family.
Following the death of five-month-old Bryson Webb, DSS Director Lillian Koller implemented a policy change, requiring caseworkers to contact law enforcement when a child can't be found within 72 hours.
But Haley said she's seeking additional changes, which include improving communication between law enforcement and the Richland County DSS office. Similar issues were addressed at the Greenville DSS office in 2011, Haley said, and resulted in improved quality of the office, which is what she's seeking to do in Richland County. "What I feel like was happening in Richland County, is they have more moving parts than other counties, but the communication was not there," Haley said. "What we are doing in Richland County, while different than Greenville, is very much the same concept: you go in and you don't stop fixing until you feel like you've got some sort of way to manage the county."
The changes include sending 20 caseworkers from surrounding counties to Richland County to reduce caseload for staffers, while an additional group of case workers undergo training. A liaison position will also be created to improve communication between Richland County offices of law enforcement, the coroner, DSS and Richland County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he welcomes any changes that lead to saving the lives of children. Lott publicly lamented the death of Bryson, releasing conflicting information on the case in April.
"I think we need to focus not on crisis management but being proactive," said Lott Tuesday. "Don't wait until we have a crisis with a child dying and then react to it. Let's be very proactive and come up with programs before we lose kids' lives."
One of the changes that will have an immediate statewide impact is placing two DSS staffers at SLED's Fusion Center.
Fusion Centers were created to improve communication among federal, state and local government agencies after the Sept. 11 attacks. Law enforcement agencies feed information to the center, which acts as a central hub; law enforcement uses the information to fight crime as well.
Placing two staffers at the Fusion Center could help case workers access information law enforcement has that could be vital to a case, Haley said. Ideally, it can lead to a picture database of children. If police are dispatched to a reported child abuse case, the officer will have a picture of the child to know what he or she looks like.
"DSS is an agency I will never be satisfied with," Haley said. "I will walk out of this office and still wondering what I could've done with this agency."
Other changes Haley would like to see ultimately implemented statewide include having staffers from the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services and from the Department of Mental Health in every DSS county office.
DSS has been a hot-button issue for Haley's gubernatorial challengers. On Tuesday, Tom Ervin called on Haley to replace Koller. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said Haley's changes were like "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, issued a statement Tuesday through a written release concerning the changes. He said the agency is in "total meltdown."
Lourie has been a vocal critic of Koller. He was the first lawmaker to call for her resignation and later called on Haley to fire Koller, who has said she respectfully declines to resign.
"The problems are not limited to one or two counties," Lourie said in the statement. "Today's announcement from the Governor is just a Band-Aid for a chest wound."
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