Activists sue over S.C. foster care woes

Several children's rights activists filed a federal lawsuit Monday in Charleston on behalf of 11 children who it says have been harmed because of "dangerous deficiencies" undermining South Carolina's foster care system.

The children were abused, overmedicated with powerful prescriptions, separated from their siblings, kept in solitary confinement and fed moldy or expired food, according to court documents.

The lawsuit also argues the Department of Social Services has failed to maintain an adequate number of foster homes for children in the system, that DSS caseworkers have been assigned too many cases to manage and that children enrolled in foster care have not been receiving the basic health care that they need.

These aren't new arguments. A Legislative Audit Council report published last year uncovered a multitude of problems plaguing the social services agency. A series of child deaths in 2014 prompted legislative hearings and calls to reform the department, and forced the former DSS director to resign.

Gov. Nikki Haley said on Monday that lawsuits don't tell her administration something unless it's off her radar. She added that a surge in caseworkers and on assistant caseworkers is already in the works.

"We're already doing this," Haley said. "So whatever lawsuits come in, I'm not worried unless we're not working on it."

Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said DSS keeps proposing fixes, including hiring more caseworkers, but that it hasn't followed through.

"They really are looking at a Band-Aid approach," Berkowitz said. "There has to be systemic change."

Some of the alleged abuse outlined in the lawsuit is horrendous, she acknowledged.

For example, a girl named "Michelle H." was repeatedly beaten with a belt by her foster mother in Beaufort. "Ava," who was placed in the Jenkins Facility in Charleston, was deprived food and feminine hygiene products. Also, "a maintenance worker asked Ava to take nude pictures of herself and provide them to him. Ava reported this to Jenkins staff but no action was taken."

A 13-year-old named "Sammy V." was inappropriately touched by another resident after he was placed at New Beginnings of Charleston, two hours away from his biological family.

"Andrew R." received no mental health evaluation at Epworth Children's Home in Richland County, but was placed on "a powerful psychotropic medication for the first time in his life. The medication is commonly prescribed to treat bipolar disorder; yet Andrew had never been (and has never been) diagnosed with bipolar disorder."

According to federal data cited in the lawsuit, more than 3,000 children are enrolled in the state's foster care system. Approximately 20 percent of them are not placed in foster homes, but in group homes and institutions, which research shows are more restrictive for children.

"Foster care is supposed to be a safe haven for abused and neglected children, yet South Carolina is re-victimizing the kids it's supposed to protect," said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children's Rights, in a prepared statement. "There's got to be accountability when long-standing systemic problems, like a severe lack of mental health services, gross overreliance on institutions and high case loads, continue to harm innocent children."

The lawsuit, which was filed by Children's Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and attorney Matthew T. Richardson, names Gov. Nikki Haley and Department of Social Services Director Susan Alford as defendants. In a prepared statement, Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said the governor considers protecting children the state's most important job.

"That's why the governor has been actively pursuing a new direction for the agency, including hiring new caseworkers and human services specialists, enhanced training for those professionals and improving coordination with key stakeholders, such as law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals and families," Adams said. "We will continue to pursue reforms at DSS - knowing that our work will never be done protecting the children of South Carolina."

DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus responded in a statement, "The Department of Social Services and our child-welfare caseworkers across this state are completely dedicated and work hard every day to ensure that foster children receive the care that meets their individual needs. Children who come into our care are assessed at that time to determine the services which will best provide for their physical, mental and educational needs.

"In regards to this specific lawsuit, the agency will fully evaluate the claims and respond in an appropriate forum."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.