When Gov. Nikki Haley introduced Lillian Koller as her new director of the Department of Social Services, she touted the work Ms. Koller did in a similar job in Hawaii: She reduced the number of children in foster care by half, reduced the rate of re-abuse of children by two-thirds, streamlined the staff by 21 percent and reduced errors and delays.
That was in January 2011.
More than three years later, those aren't the numbers people in South Carolina want to hear. They want to know, and deserve to know: how many cases social workers manage at any given time, how many children under the watch of DSS have been harmed or have died, and how long it will take to assess the dysfunction of DSS and fix it.
Sadly, it seems that the director has failed to deliver straightforward answers to important questions. And at this point, with information emerging about preventable deaths, unreasonable case loads and an unwillingness to cooperate with coroners after DSS children die, Ms. Koller should no longer be given the benefit of the doubt. It should be up to Ms. Koller and the governor to prove to the state that she can - and will - straighten things out at DSS. Immediately.
If she can't, or won't, she needs to be replaced.
It is very troubling that Ms. Koller and her staff would obfuscate when circumstances warrant tough scrutiny and deliberate reforms. Children in DSS need the state to protect them, not to use them as twisted statistics.
And covering up systemic problems certainly makes reform elusive. How do you repair DSS using misleading numbers?
For example, the Senate's DSS Oversight Committee was first told that the average worker handled six cases at any time.
The senators were understandably skeptical. They had heard about overwhelmingly large case loads.
So pressed at a later hearing on the subject, Ms. Koller conceded that the average was more. Far more.
Apparently, the initial average was reached by including administrative personnel who handle a case every once in a while. In any event, the actual average for rank-and-file case workers was clearly underestimated.
In South Carolina, 4 percent of workers have 30 cases or more; 12 percent handle 25 cases or more; and 21 percent handle at least 20 cases.
The national standard is 12 to 15.
Then there is the issue of secrecy. Several coroners reported to the Oversight Committee that DSS was refusing to cooperate and provide information necessary for them to investigate deaths. DSS clients, including children, are correctly afforded privacy as a rule. But when they die, the rules change. It's important to diagnose why and how it happened, and to use that information to improve DSS policy and practices.
But a number of DSS employees and former employees have complained that the current DSS leadership is more interested in producing impressive numbers than in providing good services.
Gov. Haley has promised to get involved personally in reforming the Richland County DSS. That's where five-month-old Bryson Webb died in his car seat on April 22. DSS said it had been unable to track down the boy's family after receiving a complaint, but did not ask law enforcement for help.
Bryson's case worker had 37 cases on March 2. By March 9, the worker had 49.
It took 49 days - a day before Bryson died - for a DSS intake worker to call the relative who made the complaint on Bryson's behalf.
Ms. Koller has since addressed that problem. DSS now requires that if staff cannot find a child or family within 72 hours, they must contact law enforcement for assistance.
But who knows how many other policy changes need to be implemented? And focusing on Richland County alone isn't enough. A statewide analysis is needed.
Ms. Koller has provided some numbers about reducing the number of children in South Carolina in foster care, and that sounds like a good thing.
But until she can redeem herself by addressing other serious shortcomings in DSS, those other numbers will be seen as mere eyewash.
The children of South Carolina deserve better than that.
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