COLUMBIA - Department of Social Services workers will no longer bear sole responsibility for children under their care, Gov. Nikki Haley said Thursday, advocating a team approach in her most direct, public response to criticism of the embattled agency to date.
"Let's go and show everybody in South Carolina and let's make them proud, because I have a dream for all children to be happy," said Haley, while speaking at a Court Appointed Special Advocate of Richland County rally commemorating the 51st anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech. CASA is a public-private partnership that ensures court-appointed guardians for neglected and abused children.
Haley was invited to speak at the event, which started with a march down Main Street in Columbia and ended at the steps of the Statehouse. Dozens of CASA and DSS workers participated in the march, wearing shirts that said "I have a dream ... for our children."
Haley promised in May she'd take a "hands-on approach" with Richland County DSS after the death of 5-month-old Bryson Webb. The child, who had a heart condition, died in his car seat on April 22. His mother was charged with homicide by child abuse or neglect.
The agency was criticized for its handling of the infant's case, after Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott accused DSS of taking 49 days to follow up on a complaint that the boy's mother was not regularly using a heart monitor that would sound off if he had trouble breathing or his heartbeat slowed.
The changes mandated by Haley included sending 20 caseworkers from surrounding counties to Richland County to reduce caseloads for staffers, while an additional group of caseworkers underwent training. A liaison position also was created to improve communication between Richland County offices of law enforcement, the coroner, DSS and CASA. Other changes Haley said she wanted 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.
Among those present on Thursday were Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, DSS Deputy Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter and the new director of the Richland County DSS, Reese Palmer. Also present was Richland County Council Chairman Norman Jackson, who called on Haley for action.
"Regrettably, every time a child dies, it's a reminder that our state government has failed them and that failure can never be corrected," Jackson told the crowd. "Today the time has come for a call for action, Gov. Haley, to right these wrongs and do for all of these children what you were sworn to do: give them a fighting a chance. ... This is probably the single most important thing you will ever do as governor."
Jackson added after the rally ended that he wishes for past mistakes to be corrected. When it comes to children he said the governor should put politics aside. Haley was not there to see Jackson's speech - she departed shortly before Jackson was scheduled to speak.
A few protesters heckled Haley during and after her speech. When she rhetorically asked how she could protect children from their own parents, someone shouted "expand Medicaid."
Also among the crowd were several staffers from the National Association of Social Workers, who held signs calling for the protection of children.
Haley said Richland County's DSS office should now be the model office for the rest of the state, by involving other agencies so that "every single child" has a team protecting him or her. She said many agencies, including mental health, would work together to protect children.
"But that takes all of us," Haley said. "And in order for us to do that, there's no passing the buck, there's no pointing fingers. There's saying: 'We're going to be responsible, every single one of us for every single case, for every single child.'"
Carla Damron, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the social workers association, was skeptical that Haley would implement the additional resources necessary to have a team protect every child.
"She's talking about a huge expenditure of state resources for that to happen," Damron said. "Wow. If that was true, I would be so happy. But somehow I can't believe it."
Just days after Lott castigated DSS publicly about Webb's death, he was featured in a campaign ad for Haley's primary political opponent in her bid for re-election, Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen. In the ad, Lott said Sheheen "won't play politics with children's lives."
Haley's appearance at the event also drew swift condemnation from Sheheen, who blasted the governor's appearance as an attempt to sweep the problems of the agency under the rug. DSS's alleged mismanagement of children under its care is under investigation by a Senate panel, and its former director, Lillian Koller, resigned in June.
"Even now, Gov. Haley continues to stand by the actions of her failed appointee and her failed agency," Sheheen said at a press conference at the state Democratic party's headquarters shortly after Haley's remarks. "And that is a disgrace. Children still are in danger and now Nikki Haley has the gall to show up at a rally at the Statehouse in front of cameras and claim that things are great and say no one should point fingers. I believe in honest government and that's just dishonest."
Chaney Adams, Haley campaign spokesman, said, "Like trial lawyers are prone to do, Vince Sheheen is flat out lying. The governor was invited to the event by CASA leadership, neither the campaign nor the governor's office had anything to do with planning the event, and CASA is a independent organization. We really don't have a clue what Vince is talking about, but whatever it is, it sure sounds desperate."