A federal judge has ordered the S.C. Department of Social Services to appear in court next month after court-appointed experts concluded "too little has changed" at the embattled agency.
Among the several problems identified: agency employees charged with investigating allegations of child abuse in "out-of-home" settings are particularly overburdened.
DSS has been quick to publicize areas of improvement but DSS Director Susan Alford, who took the helm in 2014 after her predecessor resigned, acknowledged in a recent press release that reform takes time.
"It won’t happen as quickly as we all would like because lasting child welfare reform requires rebuilding an already overburdened system from its foundation," Alford said.
No one at the agency agreed to be interviewed for this story.
Meanwhile, DSS critics argue the agency is moving far too slowly.
"Are they putting enough resources into it?" asked Sue Berkowitz, executive director of Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "We’re concerned that they’re not making enough progress."
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has ordered DSS to appear in court in Charleston in June to review the agency's five-year budget plan and to discuss "additional funding, staff, and other resources necessary" to meet the terms of a 2016 class-action settlement.
In early 2015, Children's Rights, a national advocacy group, and the Columbia-based Appleseed Legal Justice Center filed that lawsuit on behalf of 11 foster children. They alleged DSS suffered from systemic deficiencies that were harming thousands of vulnerable minors.
Part of the settlement requires DSS to undergo routine monitoring by court-appointed experts.
The latest progress report, made public in April, shows DSS has successfully reduced the number of young foster children living in group homes and is also doing a better job placing siblings together in foster homes.
“All of this work to place children in family homes is aimed at creating a more community based approach to providing services to children and family," said Taron Davis, DSS deputy state director for child welfare services, in a prepared statement. "This work will also help the department improve its ability to achieve legal permanency through reunification with parents or adoption."
But the consultants identified many more problems that haven't been addressed. Children are often placed too far away from their families, they wrote. Caseworkers are also responsible for too many children and manage caseloads "well above acceptable standards."
The caseloads managed by investigators in the Out-of-Home Abuse and Neglect unit are very high, the report found. These employees are charged with investigating a range of abuses — from emotional abuse to sexual — that may occur in settings outside a child's home, such as day care centers or congregate care facilities.
The court-appointed monitors discovered every single one these DSS investigators carried caseloads more than 125 percent over the limit.
"(S)uch high caseloads make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for DSS to follow through on improving the quality of practice," the monitors wrote.
Furthermore, a review of all the unit's child abuse and neglect investigations from September found none of them had been handled correctly. In each case, the monitors found investigators failed to make contact with "all necessary core witnesses."
“We knew the problems were deep when we brought this lawsuit, and this report reveals that initial compliance efforts have so far been slow and ineffective,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children’s Rights, in a prepared statement.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the DSS deputy state director for child welfare services.