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SC DSS Director Michael Leach trying to transform the long-troubled social services agency

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Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach listens during a meeting in North Charleston on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Employees at the agency have praised his hands-on approach to leadership. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A flaw exists at the heart of every social services agency — even among the very best child welfare programs in the country — and it's this: Families do a better job raising children than the government does.

Even so, government employees remove girls and boys and teenagers from their families every day for a variety of legitimate reasons — sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence and more — knowing full well that the Department of Social Services can't possibly promise it will do these children no harm.

Sometimes, placing a child in state custody is absolutely necessary — a black and white choice. More often than not, though, the decision is grey. 

DSS may be acting with the best intentions, but removing children from their homes and their parents is almost always traumatic. Best case scenario, the agency can minimize the harm it inflicts as much as humanly possible.

The best social workers understand this paradox, that the branch of government set up to make sure children and vulnerable adults are kept safe can end up causing just as much damage, if not more, than anything or anyone else. 

An energetic man named Michael Leach is in charge of the S.C. Department of Social Services these days and he understands how all of this works more than most people. He's the one trying to figure out how to fix almost everything at one of the most outdated child welfare agencies in the country.

During a normal year, the work is exhausting, even "impossible," as he's called it before. COVID made it much more complicated. 

Leach, 41, moved from Nashville, Tenn., with his wife Amber and their 9-year-old son Aiden last year to lead a cabinet agency of 4,300 employees, predominantly African American, who have been besieged by bad news and bad morale for the better part of a decade. They are overworked and underpaid compared to their counterparts in other states and many of them leave their jobs at the agency after only 1.6 years. 

Leach's days are long and his task list is never-ending. He needs more money from the Legislature and he needs more people if he has any chance of making meaningful change in a timely way. And time is of the essence. Leach and his chief of staff estimated when they arrived that DSS lagged behind other states when it came to best practices by 10 or 15 years. 

"I feel like when I walked in here, it was 2006," he said. 

Leach's vision for change is straightforward: Parents are experts. Families are clients. DSS is not their savior. And the department needs to do as much good as it can for families by offering them meaningful services for a limited amount of time. 

"We don’t want to be involved in families’ lives forever," Leach said. "We can’t let families just sit in the system. It’s not healthy. It’s not healthy, at all."

The first two months on the job last year, Leach worked 14-hour days, seven days a week, he said. There's so much urgency to the work, in fact, that Leach said he can't afford to focus on one thing at a time. "I have to focus on everything."

DSS directors, at least in South Carolina, don't tend to stay around for very long. Last year, Leach became the third director confirmed by lawmakers in eight years and the first one in recent memory, it seems, who has engendered any sort of outspoken optimism among the advocate community.

"He is a breath of fresh air," said Sue Williams, CEO of Children's Trust of South Carolina. "He has the support of a lot of people, which is something that not all directors have had."

That support extends beyond state lines. In September, DSS announced that a coalition of groups, including the U.S. Children's Bureau and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, picked South Carolina among only four jurisdictions in the country to participate in a national program called "Thriving Families, Safer Children."

The pilot is designed to support families and prevent unnecessary child separations. Some of the people who work closely with Leach say his national reputation and his existing relationships with experts outside South Carolina will benefit this state at no cost to its taxpayers.

"He's exactly the right man, in the right place, at the right time," said Gov. Henry McMaster, who appointed Leach last year. "To say that he has exceeded our high expectations would be an understatement. We are lucky to have him."

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Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach holds a meeting with employees both virtually and in-person in North Charleston on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Leach regularly traveled around South Carolina meeting his employees at local county offices. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A string of setbacks

Nearly six years ago, 11 children filed a sweeping class action lawsuit in Charleston County's federal court against DSS and former Gov. Nikki Haley, alleging they'd been abused, beaten, neglected and mistreated in foster homes and group homes across South Carolina. 

DSS was also accused in the "Michelle H" lawsuit (as it's commonly called) of institutionalizing its youngest foster children in group homes at a much higher rate than any other state in the country, even though child welfare experts have long agreed that children should be placed in family-like settings whenever possible. 

In 2015, the lawsuit was the latest blow in a string of demoralizing setbacks for DSS. 

Just months earlier, former Director Lillian Koller resigned under fire after lawmakers became increasingly incensed that children who had been identified by the agency as potential abuse victims were dying. The workloads that DSS employees were carrying were simply too high. Legislators were concerned that children were falling through the cracks. 

In one high-profile case, DSS had been tipped off 16 times over several years about a Richland County man and woman. Their son, Robert Guinyard Jr., 4, was beaten to death with a metal rod in 2013, one year before Koller resigned. His parents were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Koller retired to Hawaii and was shortly replaced by Susan Alford, from Clemson University's Youth Learning Institute. Alford inherited the Michelle H lawsuit, helping to negotiate a settlement in October 2016. 

But court-appointed monitors who were charged with tracking the agency's progress every six months became increasingly frustrated with its slow pace of change. 

In a 2017 report, the Michelle H monitors determined that DSS needed to hire another 670 caseworkers to meet the terms of the class-action settlement and wrote that "DSS has not mustered the resources and the internal capacity needed to intensively drive reform."

Another year later, the court-appointed monitors wrote that DSS had assigned dozens of children in state custody to Pinelands Group Homes in Summerville, even after agency officials were made aware that Pinelands allegedly punished children by boarding them up in small, dark rooms for long stretches of time. The director of that facility denied those allegations after they were made public. 

The monitors recommended that DSS move children out of Pinelands with a “requisite high sense of urgency.”

Alford had already resigned. 

That's when McMaster assembled a group of lawmakers, among others, to find her replacement. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of the S.C. Senate DSS Oversight Committee, participated in the search committee.

"I'm not going to tell you the number of calls I used to field from district (DSS) offices with complaints," Shealy said. 

Michael Leach, who was second-in-command over programs at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services at the time, submitted his application for the South Carolina job in early 2019. He was confirmed in April last year, nine months after Alford submitted her resignation. 

"I’m not trying to badmouth previous directors," Shealy said, "but I can’t possibly imagine what would have happened had Mike Leach not been here (during COVID)." 

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Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach walks into Trident Technical College to participate in a statewide panel discussion about children on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, applauded the fact that Leach attends meetings himself, instead of sending a deputy. "He’s just an involved director," she said. "If every director we had in every agency was as involved as Mike Leach, it would be a wonderful world." Lauren Petracca/Staff

Even some of the agency's staunchest critics are cautiously optimistic that Leach is invested in real reform.

"He’s showing a lot more leadership and willingness to take steps that others had been really timid to try to make," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia. Her group was involved in filing the Michelle H lawsuit. 

"They've got a long way to go, but I do think, considering how the agency just fell apart under Lillian (Koller) and wasn’t really brought back to life under Susan (Alford), it’s been really refreshing," she said. 

'The Energizer Bunny'

Leach was raised in Reno, Nev., by his mother, who is a nurse practitioner, and his stepfather, an African American man from North Carolina who now works as a private investigator. 

From his mother, Leach said he learned about toughness, about how to keep doing important work even when it's hard. And from his stepfather, he learned to extend kindness, especially to those who don't deserve it. 

Leach studied sociology in college and earned a graduate degree in Tennessee. He worked at Vanderbilt University for a while as a outpatient therapist and continued moonlighting with a mobile crisis unit. 

He eventually moved into government work, ascending his way to the near-top of Tennessee's child welfare bureau. 

Sandra Wilson, the deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services' Office of Child Programs, said she's known Leach for 15 years. 

"More than anything, his high energy level brings strength to any challenge," Wilson said. "There’s no one more energetic than Mike."

His colleagues in South Carolina repeated the same thing about him — over and over. Darrell Morris, DSS county director in Charleston, called his boss "the Energizer Bunny." 

Emily Parks, his chief of staff who joined Leach from Tennessee, said that he works "nonstop."

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Emily Parks, chief of staff for the Department of Social Services, talks to employees during a meeting in North Charleston on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Parks called her boss the hardest working person she knows. Lauren Petracca/Staff

"He’s the hardest working person I know," Parks said, "and I’m a very hard worker."

Even McMaster pointed out his energy level as an asset for the agency. 

When the South Carolina Department of Education needed help finding thousands of children who'd gone dark during the COVID pandemic, McMaster said Leach stepped up and volunteered to find them. In some cases, quite literally. Leach knocked on doors trying to locate some of these children himself. 

"There was a time when we could not locate several thousand children. They just fell off the radar," the governor said. "And doggone if he didn’t find them." 

Working through the settlement

Leach has big dreams for DSS, but, for the time being, he's busy building a foundation for the department from the ground up. 

That includes raising rates for foster families, ensuring that siblings in state custody are placed together when possible, and leveraging the power of extended family when children need to be removed from their parents. 

Until Leach came on board, relatives who agreed to take in a niece or a nephew, or one of their grandchildren, were not paid or trained by the state during the licensing process. That changed earlier this year. 

The agency's latest accomplishment has been setting up a centralized 24/7 call center for child abuse reports. 

Previously, child abuse reporters had to call their local DSS office to make a report, and those offices were only staffed during weekday business hours. Leach said he suspects that many child abuse reports were never made simply because no one at DSS answered the phone. 

The 24/7 intake line went live on Oct. 19. 

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Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach hands a DSS pin to Lowcountry Regional Director Enid Jenkins following a meeting in North Charleston on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. In 2019, Leach became the third DSS director confirmed by state lawmakers in eight years. Lauren Petracca/Staff

There's much more to do. Leach wants to raise DSS employee salaries to attract applicants and convince his existing employees to stay on board. He wants to hire more social workers with advanced degrees. He needs to find more foster families who are willing to take on siblings and teenagers and drive the use of kinship care and reduce South Carolina's reliance on group homes for children in state custody.

He made note at a meeting with DSS employees in Charleston earlier this month that many of the teenagers who flounder in state custody until they turn 18 end up returning to the same homes and the same parents from whom DSS pulled them in the first place. Home is still home, after all, and parents, even bad ones, tend to love their children.

"So, why not accept the inevitable?" Leach charged his employees. "Work with that family. Removing a child makes the child feel like they’re the problem, but the problem is the community and the family dynamic." 

And then, of course, there's Michelle H. 

The agency is working its way through a list of 437 things that the settlement agreement mandates. Some of the terms of the settlement agreement will require South Carolina to exceed federal standards. Leach is trying to work with the court-appointed monitors to revise some of the agency's goals. Even so, the tasks associated with that lawsuit will very likely outlive his tenure as director. 

"It's going to take us many, many years to exit this," Leach said. 

In that sense, the work never really ends, even when he leaves the office. At home, he finds time to ride bikes with Aiden. And there are weeknight Cub Scout meetings and baseball practice. He prefers being busy. 

"I have to be doing something. Laundry, cleaning, something — whatever," he said. "Boredom is bad for me." 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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