DSS progress in Charleston County

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said the agency has made strides to improve practices on the Charleston County level.

She offered the following examples as evidence of progress:

The agency's Charleston County office has new leadership, including a new county director and deputy director.

Performance coaches have been provided for support staff and caseworkers.

Additional training and coaching has been provided to help staff identify safety threats.

Support staff and caseworkers have received in-depth training on documenting and assessing services needed for children and families.

Roundtable discussions have been established to increase communication regarding safety and effective use of practices.

County and regional leadership received additional training by participating in the Leadership Academy for Supervisors through the University of South Carolina School of Social Work, in partnership with the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute.

The facts speak for themselves in the eyes of Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten.

Elijah Washington should be alive. Instead, while under the watch of state social workers, the Mount Pleasant child died last year from a severe blow to the gut and other injuries. He never made it to his third birthday.

If anything can be learned from his death, Wooten said, it's that a change of approach is crucial in order for the state Department of Social Services to save other children from meeting the same end.

"Elijah should not be dead, period. He should not be dead," she said. "I believe, rightly or wrongly, that had things been handled differently, he wouldn't be."

DSS was well aware of Elijah, Wooten said.

Officials were notified of multiple bruises and broken bones on the toddler long before his battered body ended up at the county morgue. But DSS left him in the care of the same family members who later took four months to claim his remains from the morgue. They only did so, Wooten said, after she threatened to dispose of the remains herself.

A year later, it's still unclear why Elijah was allowed to remain in the home where he later received those fatal blows. DSS has refused to comment on an internal investigation that would answer that question.

The system failed Elijah, Wooten said, and the issues that are evident in his case are indicative of a much larger problem with DSS that has yet to be addressed on the state level. Others agree, and some state lawmakers have called for a massive overhaul of the department to ensure South Carolina's children are adequately protected.

Gov. Nikki Haley recently announced changes to the Richland County office after an infant died in April while a DSS staffer searched for the baby's family. She's sending in back-up workers to help with the caseload and taking steps to improve communication between the office and law enforcement.

Critics, however, insist more needs to be done.

Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who chairs the Senate's DSS Oversight Committee, said he has a stack of letters detailing similar problems in the Lowcountry and other parts of the state. Yet, Haley has not announced any policy changes addressing problems outside of the state capital.

"DSS is a larger problem than just one county and we need systematic changes," House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said. "It's appalling that we have been paying the penalty for years. DSS has a lot of problems and it needs a lot of work."

At least three state lawmakers, including Lourie, have demanded that DSS Director Lillian Koller step down from her position as a means of jump-starting statewide change. But Koller has rebuffed calls for her resignation, and Haley has voiced strong support for the embattled DSS leader.

DSS came under fire in recent months during a series of subcommittee hearings aimed at pinpointing the agency's apparent shortfalls. Points of scrutiny included the workload of the department's caseworkers as well as the apparent fumbling of multiple statewide cases.

Wooten traveled to Columbia to join that chorus of critics. Two months later, she said she continues to sift through years worth of paperwork detailing the lives and untimely deaths of children like Elijah.

It's tedious work. But worth the effort if her findings could prompt the change needed to save lives, she said.

Wooten has often voiced her frustration with an apparent cloak of secrecy that she said shrouds DSS and hinders death investigations conducted by her office. When summoned before that group of lawmakers in March, Wooten maintained that transparency should be at the forefront of the conversation.

"I want full disclosure, I don't want partial. By the time you get to the point where a child has died it screams pretty loudly that we have a problem here," Wooten told The Post and Courier. "I shouldn't have to figure out which question I didn't ask to get information that might be helpful to the investigation. There should be a law that requires DSS to give full disclosure about any contact they've ever had with any of the players."

In all of her research, one case immediately comes to her mind as evidence of the department's deficiencies - Elijah's.

The boy died March 19, 2013 from severe abdominal injuries as a result of blunt force trauma, allegedly at the hand of his grandmother's boyfriend.

Elijah's story

Like most fatal cases of child abuse, Elijah's death allegedly came at the hands of the person who was charged with his care. That recurring circumstance heightens the level of difficulty that comes with prosecuting child abuse cases, Wooten said.

"No one wants to believe that parents kill their kids. Nobody wants to believe that a mother would put a bad apple in charge of her kids," Wooten said.

Bryan Okeith Seabrook, 26, of Mathis Ferry Road, was babysitting Elijah the day he was rushed to East Cooper Medical Center. Elijah was later pronounced dead at the hospital as a result of his injuries.

Seabrook told Mount Pleasant investigators that the boy threw up while seated at a table and appeared weak while being bathed. Elijah's condition worsened after he was put to bed, prompting Seabrook to take him to the hospital, he told police.

An arrest affidavit indicated that Seabrook struck Elijah shortly before he became unresponsive.

Seabrook remains locked up at the Al Cannon Detention Center awaiting trial on a homicide by child abuse charge. He could face 20 years to life if convicted.

In the months following Elijah's death, DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus refused to discuss specifics regarding the agency's involvement in the case. She did, however, release a statement at the time that said DSS was in the process of evaluating how the case was handled "and whether decisions made were consistent with policy, procedures and good practice."

When questioned last week about the results of that evaluation, Matheus said that information was not subject to public release.

"The family and community still mourn Elijah Washington's passing and the Department of Social Services shares in their grief," Matheus said in a statement. "Anytime a child dies it is a tragedy - especially when it comes at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them the most. As always, we are committed to learning everything we can and making the appropriate changes to help prevent these senseless deaths from occurring. We constantly evaluate and assess our practices to provide better safety and response and will continue doing that until we can say all South Carolina children are safe from abuse and neglect."

In the wake of Elijah's death, DSS officials removed his two sisters from the home they shared with their mother, grandmother and Seabrook.

Matheus said she did not know whether the girls had been permanently placed in a home in the year since they were taken. Privacy laws prevent her from revealing their current whereabouts, she said.

Kindrell Hartwell, an adult cousin of Elijah's, said the girls' maternal great-grandmother Sallie Perry had sought custody.

Perry is the widow of former Mount Pleasant Police Chief Ronald "Roddy" Perry, Hartwell said. An obituary for Ronald Perry lists Elijah's mother as his step-granddaughter.

Sallie Perry declined a request for comment. Hartwell and her grandmother, who previously told The Post and Courier that she reported Elijah's injuries to DSS prior to his death, did not respond to a request for an in-depth interview on the status of the case.

Accepting responsibility

When Elijah died, Wooten conducted a child death review that was attended by a DSS representative to examine all of the factors surrounding his death. The practice is customary for her office following any child fatality that resulted from violence or unexplainable circumstances. But, she said, that process is made more difficult by her having to drag valuable information out of DSS when crucial details should be readily available.

If successful, such reviews can help pinpoint who should be held accountable in a child's death, both internally within the affected family and externally in terms of public officials, Wooten said.

She said that in her opinion, DSS holds some culpability in the death of Elijah. She would not, however, join the discussion about whether Director Koller should step down as a result of perceived agency missteps.

"Accountability and disclosure are critical for whoever's at the helm," she said. "At the end of the day who's responsible for the decision making that didn't happen? What didn't we do that we should have and what happened that shouldn't have? Nobody ever owns that because someone always passes the buck to the next level. Nobody's ever held with their feet to the fire, that I can tell."

Koller went before the Senate's DSS Oversight Committee twice, including last week, after returning from a medical leave that kept her from testifying for months.

She defended the agency's practices and addressed questions regarding Haley's intervention at the Richland County DSS office. Koller implemented a policy change shortly after that child's death, requiring staffers to call law enforcement when a family can't be found within 72 hours.

Haley has said that she plans to take a more hands-on approach while implementing an additional series of changes to improve the quality of the Midlands office. Any new programs or policy changes that are developed could potentially trickle to other counties as needed, she said.

Haley added that she will continue to stand by Koller.

"We are a great partnership and I think it's because I love the fact that she's a mom, but I love the fact that she very much sees things like I do, which is never being satisfied," Haley said of Koller. "And that's the one type of person I want at this agency, someone who is never going to be OK with the conditions of what we see."

Cynthia Roldan contributed to this story. Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.