The number of children under the protection of the S.C. Department of Social Services has climbed substantially in the past six years, jumping from roughly 3,100 children in 2012 to nearly 4,600 today, according to data published Monday by the Chronicle of Social Change.
The increase has posed a particular challenge for the state's social services agency, forcing officials to continue leaning on congregate care and group homes for children, the report shows.
The number of South Carolina foster children sent into an institution or group home nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, the Chronicle of Social Change found.
DSS spokeswoman Pam Bryant said the agency's own data does not indicate a "increasing reliance on group homes." She said the "analysis by the Chronicle of Social Change is nearly three years old."
She provided numbers that show 22.5 percent of children in state custody were placed in congregate care during the 2012 fiscal year. Six years later, the percentage dropped slightly to 21.4 percent.
"Our agency’s immediate focus (during this time frame) ... was ending the use of congregate care for children 6 and younger," Bryant said.
In November 2015, 142 foster children who were 6 years old or younger had been placed in a congregate care facility by DSS, she said. Earlier this year, the number had dropped to 11.
Data provided by the agency also shows congregate care placements for children 12 years old and younger have dropped, although less dramatically. Bryant did not provide data for children older than 12 and said no one from the agency was available to be interviewed for this article.
Experts agree these congregate settings aren't well suited for children, particularly young ones. A 2015 Post and Courier investigation found that children in South Carolina have been exposed to neglect, sexual abuse and violence inside group homes.
In most circumstances, advocates agree that children are better served when they are placed in foster homes or with relatives.
But the S.C. Department of Social Services has so far been unsuccessful in recruiting new foster families to meet the growing need. In fact, the number of licensed "non-relative" foster homes in South Carolina dropped slightly from 2017 to 2018, the Chronicle of Social Change found.
"We’ve got an absolutely long, long way to go," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia. Her group filed a federal lawsuit against DSS in 2015 on behalf of 11 child plaintiffs who were allegedly subjected to a range of abuse and neglect inside foster homes and institutions across the state.
The settlement of that lawsuit, reached one year later, has forced DSS to reduce the number of young children in congregate care and to undergo routine court-appointed monitoring by outside experts. The latest monitoring report, published in late September, identified both improvements the agency has recently made and its ongoing shortcomings.
While DSS had created and filled several staff positions to "strengthen the infrastructure and leadership" of the agency, the department's Out-of-Home Abuse and Neglect unit (OHAN) remains ill-equipped to investigate cases involving children who may have been harmed, the monitors wrote. A review of 32 investigations found that in all but one case, OHAN investigators failed to contact all necessary core witnesses.
"The quality of OHAN practice remains an area of significant concern," the monitors wrote.
The Chronicle of Social Change report found the number of children in foster care across the country appears to be stabilizing. Even so, the need for more foster families will continue to grow.
The 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law in February, will limit the amount of federal money that may be used to place children in congregate care facilities.
"In the short term, in at least some states, it will be a struggle early on," said John Kelly, editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of Social Change. "They will need more foster homes."
In South Carolina, 2,672 homes are licensed to accept foster children, according to the new report. Bryant, the DSS spokeswoman, said the agency wants to license one foster home for every child in state custody. For now, that leaves DSS about 2,000 homes short.
In the past, foster home payments have been cited as one reason South Carolina can't find an adequate number of families to participate. The rates in this state for traditional foster homes range from $13.47 to $17.84 per child per day. That amount is meant to cover food, clothing and other personal expenses. The rates paid in this state are among the lowest in the country.
There may be a silver lining in the data, said Berkowitz, of Appleseed Legal Justice. The fact that the number of foster children in state custody has substantially increased in recent years shows that DSS is doing a better job screening children as they enter system, she said.
Berkowitz said former DSS Director Lillian Koller, who was appointed by former Gov. Nikki Haley to lead the agency, encouraged county-level DSS employees to artificially "lower the number of kids in foster care." Koller resigned under pressure in 2014.
"Kids were falling through the cracks and not getting the help and being left in really, really terrible situations," Berkowitz said. "The numbers show that’s not happening anymore."
Earlier this year, Gov. Henry McMaster appointed a search committee find a new DSS director after Susan Alford, who had served as the agency's director since 2014, announced her retirement in July.