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As SC overhauls its child welfare agency, a new push to prioritize extended family

Michael Leach.jpg (copy)

Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach listens during a meeting in North Charleston on Oct. 8, 2020. Leach is increasingly focused on finding extended family for kids in state custody to live with. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Four years ago this February, a little girl was born in Colleton County.

She was three days old when she was taken into state custody. The infant had tested positive for marijuana. 

On the child's birth certificate, the mother listed her boyfriend as the father. He wasn't. The biological dad wasn't aware the infant even existed. And caseworkers at the S.C. Department of Social Services had no way of finding him. 

For months, a foster family in Dorchester County raised the baby. By October, everything had changed. The child's biological father had taken a paternity test. And while the father couldn't care for his daughter, his parents — the child's grandparents — wanted custody of the little girl. 

Her grandfather is a Berkeley County paramedic in his early 40s. He said he called DSS the same day he first found out the child was his granddaughter. But the foster family had bonded with the baby over many months, since the first fragile days after her birth. They were devastated by the prospect of losing her. 

"The foster mother reached out to me and begged me to let them adopt," the grandfather recalled. 

They've been locked in a legal battle over the adoption of this child ever since. 

Their story illustrates many of the challenges DSS faces in finding families — both temporary and permanent, related and unrelated — for thousands of children in state custody. It's a story about blood. But it's also a story about time and trauma and money. 

Experts say most children who are removed from their parents should live with relatives, when possible. But finding these extended family members, and vetting them, isn't always easy. It takes time. And DSS caseworkers have little extra of that. They're already overworked, underpaid and tend to leave the agency in less than two years. 

As recently as 2019, this state ranked 48th in the country in terms of "kinship care" placements. Before that, South Carolina ranked 49th.

"When you don’t have the resources and the support and the funding," DSS Director Michael Leach said, "you end up at the bottom."

'Striving to do better'

About 4,000 South Carolina children reside in state custody, and most of them — roughly 70 percent — live in a foster home. Children who live with relatives make up about 15 percent of all kids in state custody. Nationally, that number is 33 percent. 

This concept of "kinship care" isn't new. After all, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and older brothers and sisters have been raising extended families "since the beginning of time," said Sharleta Woodall, who heads up the state's kinship care program at DSS.

It's considered best practice for several reasons. Blood relatives are more likely to take in siblings because they want to keep their families together. And unlike many foster families, who often express a preference for infants and young children, relatives are more likely to accept teenagers into their homes. 

"I could have 5,000 foster parents ready to go, but they all want 0- to 6-year-olds. But 32 percent of the population (of children in state custody) is 13-plus," Leach said. "If 90 percent of your foster parents want 0- to 6-year-olds, you don’t have enough foster parents."

There are other reasons, too. Children who live with extended family are better able to adjust to their new environment, they're less likely to face disruptions in school, and they're less likely to act out behaviorally or to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. As a rule, these children are more stable and less traumatized if they're able to live with relatives instead of with strangers.

A federal lawsuit filed against DSS more than six years ago on behalf of several children in South Carolina custody claimed many kids had been abused, neglected and overmedicated in group homes and foster homes across the state. 

The settlement of that lawsuit, which has been overseen by Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston, will require DSS to transform itself in nearly every way it does business. That includes this renewed push to prioritize kinship care. 

Leach wants to get South Carolina closer to that national average of 33 percent. To that end, he instituted a change last year that allows relatives to receive financial help while they navigate the licensing process, which includes mandatory training and a home inspection. Kinship caregivers, just like foster parents, receive a daily stipend when they accept children in DSS custody into their homes. Previously, that money was only available to kinship families once they became officially licensed.

In next year's budget request, Leach has asked the Legislature for more money that would allow DSS to offer additional services to these families. 

"We're striving to do better," Woodall said. 

But that means little to families who say the state and its court system continue to neglect the importance of blood relatives when children are removed from their parents, particularly when it comes to permanently adopting them. 

"We had a room set up for her. We had clothes. We’ve had to give everything away," said one Upstate woman whose adult daughter recently tried and failed to adopt a cousin's 4-year-old child. 

In court, DSS allegedly advocated for an unrelated foster family to adopt the girl. Her biological mother's rights had been terminated due to drug addiction. 

Family court proceedings are closed to the public and the Spartanburg County judge who heard this case prohibited the girl's relatives from discussing it publicly, they said. The Post and Courier agreed to conceal their identities. The women said they spent $60,000 trying to adopt the child and likened the outcome of the case to "a death in the family." 

"We ended up losing her," one of the women said. "But she’ll know, one day, we fought for her."

'Trying to move a pyramid'

Here's how it's supposed to work: When a child is removed from his or her parents and taken into state custody, DSS caseworkers have a small window of time to find a home for the child. They should look for extended family first.  

But if there aren't family members available to take the child, the caseworker should try to find a foster home. If a nearby foster home is unavailable, the caseworker should look for one within the county; then, for one within the region. If there are no foster homes available anywhere, group homes for children can be considered, even though child welfare experts agree that these congregate care homes are much less ideal for children than a family-like setting. 

There are exceptions to these rules. If a child, for example, has been diagnosed with significant behavioral or mental health needs, group homes often offer a level of care that foster homes cannot provide. But they aren't considered the best fit for most children. 

Kim Clifton is executive director of Charleston Halos, a nonprofit group that supports kinship caregivers in the Lowcountry. It's the only organization of its kind in the state. Clifton said that while kinship placements should be prioritized above all other options, DSS, for many years, leaned too heavily on group homes — or what used to be called "orphanages." 

"Before 2014, we were very slow in getting kids out of group homes," Clifton said. "There’s always been a mandate to give preference to family members. There was just never any support to go along with it."

In 2015, The Post and Courier published an investigation about the group home industry and its powerful lobby in South Carolina. At that point, this state sent its youngest foster children into these congregate care homes at a much higher rate than any other state in the country. 

That's not allowed anymore — and it's one of the reasons DSS was sued in 2015. But changing the culture of a state agency that has given priority to group homes for too long hasn't been easy. It takes time and money. A lack of money, in particular, has been one of the agency's perennial problems — the reason it can't afford more child-welfare caseworkers and the reason it can't offer these front-line employees higher salaries in line with other states. 

Many child-welfare advocates across South Carolina still blame drastic budget cuts enacted under Gov. Mark Sanford's administration for the state of affairs at DSS today. 

Leach, who joined the agency in 2019 and sits on Gov. Henry McMaster's Cabinet, has been widely credited with trying to set in motion much-needed reform. He asks legislators for more money every year. 

"I think he’s genuinely trying to change things," Clifton said. "But he’s trying to move a pyramid in Egypt. And change is slow."

The bigger picture

On April 21, a family court judge in Beaufort County held an emergency hearing. He learned that the Berkeley County grandparents — the ones who were trying to adopt their granddaughter — had contacted The Post and Courier with their story. He instructed the couple's attorney to keep their identities anonymous. Their names will not be used in this article.

For years, the little girl split her time between the foster family and her grandparents. Their son — the biological father — is now in jail. The grandparents were eligible to adopt. They'd been vetted by DSS, cleared their background checks and passed their home inspection. 

On April 27, the foster family was given the green light to adopt the child. The girl's grandparents said they spent more than $50,000 fighting for her. The settlement agreement the families reached will allow the grandparents to continue to see the child. 

It's not the outcome they were hoping for. But the girl's grandparents said they'd run out of money. 

"They can afford to continue to litigate and we can’t," the grandmother said. "DSS let it happen." 

It's only one side of one family's story. The Colleton County attorney who represents the foster family did not respond to The Post and Courier's request for an interview. 

The whole story is much bigger. Clifton, with Halos, said her organization is focused on supporting kinship caregivers who have taken in children outside of state custody. In thousands of cases, all across South Carolina, relatives bring children into their homes before they're ever placed under the legal authority of DSS. They're doing this to keep these children out of the foster system, Clifton explained, but this often leaves the families ineligible for much state assistance.

She estimated that for every child in state custody who is placed with extended family there are more than a dozen children who are sent to live with relatives, but who fall outside the legal guardianship of the social services agency.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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