The state agency responsible for addressing child abuse and neglect has lost so much money to budget cuts that it can't meet many federal requirements for child welfare, according to a recently released report.

The S.C. Department of Social Services lost more than $100 million from July 2008 to December 2009 -- nearly $50 million in state money along with federal matching aid that would have flowed to the state if legislators had made targeted rather than across-the-board budget cuts.

As a result, thousands of children risk prolonged exposure to dangerous conditions at home or remain in foster care. Social workers at the cash-starved agency are so overloaded that they often can't provide even basic help.

The Child and Family Services Review issued a report in February listing the S.C. Department of Social

Services as "not in substantial conformity" with federal requirements for nine of 14 categories of child care and administration.

The review included departmental data and interviews with children, youths, birth parents, foster and adoptive parents, agency and court personnel and attorneys. The review studied 65 cases in Aiken, Beaufort and Greenville counties. It is likely that social service offices in some counties perform better or worse than the agencies scrutinized for this assessment, though all abide by the same standards and practices.

Concerns and outcomes

The report listed several key concerns, noting that South Carolina fell short in achieving "desired outcomes" for children and families with regard to adequately providing for stable living arrangements, adequately providing for the needs of children and adequately following up with parents.

Additionally, the state did not meet national standards for "timeliness of adoptions, permanency for children in foster care for extended periods, or placement stability."

The news wasn't all bad. The review cited the foster and adoption program, which facilitated about 500 adoptions in 2008 and again in 2009; credited the agency for a good quality-assurance system; took note of its collaboration with other child welfare agencies; and gave the state overall ratings of "Strength" for limiting repeat maltreatment and for striving to identify foster homes in proximity to blood relatives.

Furthermore, the state was credited for meeting national standards concerning maltreatment in foster homes and institutions, and for its efforts to facilitate reunifications.

Still, state officials say the report points to avoidable failures that could be putting children at risk.

'Deeply disturbing'

Kathleen M. Hayes, director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services, called the report's findings "deeply disturbing for the state, but not surprising." She blamed those who control the state's purse strings, saying the state has failed to invest the necessary resources.

"Despite concerted efforts by the staff of DSS and sister agencies and communities across our state, our child-welfare system is falling short of what we believe it needs to do," she said in a statement.

Hayes said the system does not do enough to involve absent fathers in their children's lives and to remove children from foster care quickly enough. She said the loss of support services -- parenting, mental health, drug and alcohol treatment and educational services -- have weakened the agency's ability to meet children's needs. She said that innovative and effective programs that once brought the state recognition have been cut because of the loss of state revenues.

"While the state needs to rely more, not less, on foster and adoptive families to parent our children, the subsidy paid by the state for foster and adoptive families continues to be frozen at the decade-old 1998 subsidy level," she said. "It is unfortunate that it continues to be the lowest in the Southeast."

Reasons

The federal review cited several key factors contributing to the state's poor performance:

• Across-the-board budget cuts that disproportionately affect families without health insurance or Medicaid.

• A failure to effectively engage parents in planning and needs assessment.

• A shortage of foster homes and overuse of emergency shelters and group homes.

• Court system delays in hearings, notification and scheduling, and the lack of adequate judicial case review.

• Ill-defined standards that result in inaccurate data and hamper the ability to make good decisions based on child and family history.

Ellen Babb is a Charleston child-welfare attorney who also works as a guardian ad litem, an unpaid volunteer who conducts an independent investigation then devises solutions that take into account the best interests of the child.

Babb said each case typically involves as many as a dozen officials who must communicate well for the case to move forward. Miscommunication, misunderstandings, false assumptions and a lack of follow-up can cause unnecessary delays that have profound consequences on families.

In South Carolina, between 2005 and 2007, five children, ages 26 days to 17 years old, died in households where parents or caregivers were involved with drugs or alcohol, prompting the Department of Social Services last year to discipline six caseworkers and a supervisor. One of the caseworkers, in Laurens County, was managing 55 cases at the time.

The caseworkers used poor judgment in assessing the danger to the children, did not move quickly enough to protect the children or didn't follow proper procedures, Hayes said in April 2009.

Babb recounted how a girl's school performance suffered because she lost her eyeglasses in a movie theater in December. She didn't get new glasses until April because her caseworker failed to ensure that she got a new prescription. Caseworkers and lawyers are doing the best they can, Babb said, but case volume and a lack of resources make the follow-up more difficult.

'The reality of 2010'

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat and a social worker, agreed that budget cuts are the largest part of the Department of Social Services problem.

"DSS is consistently underfunded because it represents a population that generally has no voice in the General Assembly," Cobb-Hunter said. The Legislature is more concerned with businesses and wealthy property owners, she said.

The across-the-board budget cut "has not worked and will not work," Cobb-Hunter said, adding that voters should replace lawmakers who fail to adequately address important public issues.

Gov. Mark Sanford, through communication director Ben Fox, also criticized across-the-board cuts and said he wants to redirect money to certain core functions of government.

"For example," Fox said in an e-mail, "eliminating state funding for the Arts Commission and the State Museum would generate nearly $6 million that could be used to fund the Judiciary, Corrections, PPP (Probation, Parole and Pardon Services), Education, DSS or other areas that are currently struggling from a budget standpoint."

Hayes, the DSS director, said her agency is projecting a deficit of $15.8 million this fiscal year. Yet, despite profound financial woes, "we must redouble our efforts," she said.

"We obviously do not have the option of shutting down the system of child protection, foster care and adoption in South Carolina in order to meet budget reductions," Hayes said. "We recognize that our children did not cause this budget crunch and we cannot ask them to wait until adults solve its consequences."