S.C. plans changes to protect foster kids Class-action suit brings agreement

DSS Director Susan Alford

Gov. Nikki Haley and the state Department of Social Services’ director have agreed to examine South Carolina’s approach to housing foster children and adopt workload limits for caseworkers in response to a class-action lawsuit that alleges “dangerous deficiencies” in the system.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel on Monday signed an interim consent agreement that will launch changes aimed at better protecting foster children in DSS care. It does not end the lawsuit.

Full settlement talks continue to address an array of critical shortcomings outlined in the federal lawsuit, said Christina Remlin, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights, one of the advocacy groups that filed the civil rights lawsuit in Charleston nine months ago.

“This is a fundamental first step in reforming the system to make it more safe for vulnerable children in South Carolina,” Remlin said. “This should have a really big impact.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 children the advocacy groups say 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 contends 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.

Haley, DSS Chief Susan Alford and attorneys for the children agreed to the following changes:

DSS will conduct a study to determine how many children agency caseworkers can handle and adopt workload limits for those workers. The agency agreed to consider national standards in adopting those limits, which will apply to all workers and supervisors. The agreement doesn’t address how the agency would pay for additional caseworkers.

Within 60 days, DSS will come up with a plan to phase out placing children ages 6 and under in non-family group homes and treatment centers. DSS also will phase out the use of hotels, motels and DSS offices for housing foster children overnight.

DSS will no longer recommend that children remain in juvenile detention simply because workers can’t find foster care placement for them.

A DSS spokeswoman said that Alford has been working to strengthen the child welfare system since she came into her post.

The director has hired 177 more case workers and 67 caseworker assistants, aggressively recruited for those positions, increased caseworkers’ salaries, restructured the child welfare division, streamlined the foster home licensing process and improved the support structure for existing foster homes, DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said.

“DSS anticipates that the agreed-upon provisions of the interim relief agreement will continue this forward momentum, and DSS is hopeful that it can continue to work towards a full resolution of the lawsuit,” Matheus said in a statement.

Earlier this year, The Post and Courier documented a number of problems with the state’s foster care system in its series “Warehousing our Children.” The series cited federal data that shows South Carolina sends its youngest foster children into group homes and institutions at a much higher rate than any other state in the country. Firsthand accounts from former foster children and group home employees indicate some young people are neglected, beaten and molested in these facilities even as the outcomes of investigations into such allegations are kept secret.

Meanwhile, state taxpayers spend millions of dollars a year on these facilities but have no way to evaluate which ones keep children safe because state laws shield the homes from public scrutiny.

The federal lawsuit contains a number of disturbing stories alleging ill treatment of foster children. Among them:

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 of 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.

“We are talking about some of the most vulnerable children in the entire state,” Remlin said. “This (interim agreement) gets the ball rolling on some real fundamental needs.”

The lawsuit was filed by Children’s Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and attorney Matthew T. Richardson.

Although critical issues remain unaddressed in Monday’s agreement, including an alleged lack of medical assessments and treatment for foster children, Remlin applauded DSS for taking a meaningful first step.

“I’m tremendously optimistic we will be able to reach agreement on this,” Remlin said.