DSS screens out child abuse reports that don’t merit investigation

The South Carolina social services agency received more than 1,300 allegations of “out-of-home” child abuse and neglect last year, but its team of investigators opened fewer than 400 investigations, new data shows.

Some reports were sent to law enforcement agencies for investigation. Others were “screened out” because they failed to meet the criteria for abuse or neglect, as defined by state law.

Taron Davis, deputy director in the child welfare services division for the Department of Social Services, said the agency was not equipped to drill down into the data to provide more specific information about 994 abuse and neglect reports that were not investigated.

She did not know how many abuse allegations were handled by police or simply closed because they did not merit investigation.

“Just because we’re not taking action, doesn’t mean another entity isn’t taking action,” Davis said. “It really varies case by case.”

Agency spokeswoman Karen Wingo said in a prepared statement that DSS receives allegations on a wide range of issues, “a number of which do not rise to the level of abuse or neglect, even if all of the allegations were true.”

For example, she wrote, the team that investigates out-of-home abuse at DSS may receive a tip that a child was bitten by a playmate at day care. The report could be accurate but it doesn’t meet the criteria for abuse.

The new 2015 fiscal year data, published on the agency’s website, resembles data from previous years. During the 2014 fiscal year, the department received 1,055 out-of-home abuse or neglect referrals but investigated only 431. In 2013, it received 760 referrals but investigated only 399.

Most of the investigations launched by DSS in 2015 involved out-of-home abuse or neglect allegations in foster homes, group homes or psychiatric institutions for children. Investigators rarely found enough evidence to support the claims, their numbers show.

For example, the agency opened 104 investigations into abuse or neglect in group homes and institutions last year but determined only eight cases were “indicated or founded.” Investigators also found evidence to prove 14 cases of abuse or neglect in child day care facilities and 25 cases of abuse or neglect in foster homes.

The agency provided the names of group homes and institutions where it opened investigations last year. But DSS would not disclose where it determined abuse and neglect had been committed because the results of those investigations are protected by state law.

The recent Post and Courier series “Warehousing our Children” determined it is nearly impossible for the public to know where children have been abused or neglected. Meanwhile, South Carolina sends its youngest foster children into group homes and institutions at a higher rate than any other state in the country, even though best practices indicate most children thrive with families, not in residential, congregate care settings. The state spends millions of dollars a year on these facilities, but taxpayers cannot evaluate where children are kept safe.

The newspaper’s series reported that child welfare experts have expressed long-running concerns that the embattled social services agency doesn’t sufficiently investigate child abuse allegations inside these facilities.

“I think transparency is a problem. They’ll say they don’t have the staff to do it,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of the DSS Oversight Committee. “They don’t have enough people to follow up on all those complaints. They’ve requested more staff. We’ve given them the money to hire more staff and they haven’t filled the positions.”

Fourteen positions are funded for the team that investigates out-of-home abuse and neglect at DSS. There are currently two vacancies.

Camden attorney Robert Butcher is particularly concerned that the agency discards reports alleging child-on-child sexual abuse inside group homes and foster homes.

“It’s not investigated ... because it’s not an adult that’s harmed a child,” Butcher said. “And they don’t have to track it.”

The state law defining child abuse and neglect includes offenses ranging from abandonment and malnourishment to sexual and mental abuse. It does not specifically mention child-on-child sexual abuse.

“If we receive a report of sexual abuse that is child-on-child sexual abuse, we don’t necessarily screen those out,” said Davis, the deputy DSS director.

For example, she said, if an adult is responsible for the welfare of a child and fails to protect the child from child-on-child sexual abuse, the case may warrant investigation.

Butcher represents a Greenville man who filed suit last month against DSS in Richland County. The man, a former foster child named K.C. in court records, alleges the agency failed to protect him from sexual abuse in various group homes and foster homes.

In an interview with The Post and Courier earlier this year, K.C. said he was sexually active with his sister and other foster children between 1999 and 2004. He contends the state agency continued to place him in homes with his sister and other children even though his caseworkers knew that they engaged in sexual activity with each other. They should have been separated and treated for their behavior, he said.

K.C. served time in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility for raping his sister. He went back to prison as a young adult for fondling a child.

“(K.C.), as someone who was sexually acting out (as a child), should have gotten the treatment and isolation that he needed, so he wouldn’t have ended up in the DJJ system,” Butcher said. “That’s the problem. We’re socializing people into the adult system by not treating them when they’re children.”

State officials do not discuss pending litigation.

Reach Lauren Sausser at (843) 937-5598.

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