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'Everybody is scared': Coronavirus pandemic leaves SC children stuck in DSS system

Michael Leach headshot (copy)

Michael Leach is the director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services. File/Provided

The director of South Carolina's child protection agency called the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic "devastating to our operations" and expressed concern that children in this state will more likely face abuse and neglect as they spend several months outside of school. 

"Everybody is scared," said Michael Leach, director of the S.C. Department of Social Services and a member of Gov. Henry McMaster's Cabinet. "The pandemic has amplified our weaknesses."

Typically, March and April see the highest number of referrals to DSS for child abuse and neglect, Leach said. The number of referrals tends to dip in the summertime when children are out of school. But already the department has watched the number of referrals decline this month, Leach said, because children aren't in contact with their educators anymore. Teachers and school officials are often the source of abuse and neglect referrals. 

This decline, paired with the immense financial stress that many parents now face, is troubling, Leach said. 

"(The pandemic) has been the biggest challenge we have ever faced," he said. "We're trying to figure out the answers." 

While South Carolina isn't alone in facing these challenges, the state's Department of Social Services has struggled for many years to meet its critical missions even before the coronavirus emerged in China last year.

The settlement of a 2015 federal lawsuit against the state agency found that DSS employees in South Carolina were managing caseloads that far exceeded industry standards. Abuse and neglect investigators were failing to appropriately carry out thorough investigations and, at one time, the state sent its youngest foster children into group homes and institutions at a much higher rate than anywhere else in the country, partly because it paid foster families among the lowest rates in the nation to care for children in state custody. 

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel, assigned to oversee the settlement agreement, expressed in August that the agency suffers from a “profound lack of staff and resources," which has made it “essentially impossible to competently and professionally carry out the mission of the agency to provide care and support for the state’s foster children.”

Leach, who previously worked as the deputy commissioner for child programs for the Tennessee child welfare system, was brought in last year to address many of these problems. Already, he has increased the rates foster families are paid and has advocated for state lawmakers to allocate more money to his agency.

Court-appointed experts who have been charged with tracking the department's progress every six months noted in a February report that "(t)he last few months have been productive and promising for DSS."

The "Department has followed through on many of these commitments," the report noted, "and has worked to do as much as possible to position itself to quickly proceed with more comprehensive reform in hopes that it will receive the funding it needs and has requested in the FY2020-2021 budget."

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Now, though, Leach fears the COVID-19 pandemic will erase any progress the department has made. 

"There's no manual for this," he said. "We know there is going to be some backslide."

The financial strain, alone, presents a huge challenge. There are currently 4,407 children in state custody. Most of them — more than 3,100 — live in a family-like setting, with a foster family, for example. But none of them are able to leave state custody because the pandemic has shut down the court system, outside of emergency hearings. So South Carolina children are still entering the child welfare system but none of them are able to leave. Leach doesn't know how much this will end up costing the state. 

"We have biological parents, foster parents on the verge of adoption," Leach said. But now, all adoptions and reunifications are indefinitely delayed. "Everybody is just trying to struggle through this as best we can." 

Furthermore, he said, many of his employees aren't able to carry out face-to-face visits with children because the virus poses such a significant threat to their health. Some of those visits are being made electronically, through Skype, for example, but doing so goes against years of accepted best practices. 

"We're telling them to do something they've never been told in their careers," he said. "It's tough."

The virus has also spooked foster families, he said, many of which have opted out of accepting any new children at this time. He credited group homes across the state for filling this gap. 

"Honestly, two weeks in, without them, we'd been in a bad place," he said. 

Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, agreed with Leach that the pandemic's impact on the social services agency "is going to be devastating." 

She said she is particularly worried about children and families who rely on programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as Medicaid. Her group is continuously updating a list of available resources in both English and Spanish on its website. Appleseed is one of the groups that filed the 2015 federal lawsuit against DSS on behalf of several children who alleged they had been abused, neglected and over-medicated in state custody. 

"These are extraordinary times," Berkowitz said. "I don't think we're the only state struggling with this." 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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