End abuse in group homes

Susan Alford, the new DSS director, takes a break in-between meetings to eat lunch at her desk Tuesday, June 16, 2015 at the South Carolina DSS in Columbia. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

Unthinkable things can happen to children in group homes. They can be beaten, molested, drugged and neglected.

But in South Carolina, information about such incidents is kept secret. That means parents are in the dark — and people who want to address the problems don’t have the information they need to do so. The S.C. General Assembly needs to recognize that state law intended to protect children is actually putting them at risk.

Last year, the Senate investigated the Department of Social Services after hearing allegations of mismanagement, unworkable caseloads and deaths of children under the agency’s authority. Lillian Koller resigned as director under pressure from lawmakers who were exasperated by her refusal to provide data about social workers’ staggering caseloads.

Her replacement, Susan Alford, faces an uphill climb. The more forthcoming she is about the system’s shortcomings, the more likely the Legislature will work to make beneficial changes, starting with changing the law.

She also should realign the DSS budget so that more children can be taken care of in homes of relatives or foster parents, and fewer in group homes.

Studies show that children do better in home settings than they do in group homes. That’s reason enough.

But an investigation by reporter Lauren Sausser revealed that group homes across the state have been the subject of multiple complaints. And while administrators say that most of the complaints are unfounded, the public has no way to find out if that’s true. DSS, which is responsible for group home oversight, will say, for example, that New Hope in York County has been investigated for 119 allegations of abuse in the past 15 years. But it will not say how many allegations were unfounded or how serious the allegations were.

That would be an easy fix — were it not for state law that calls for the information to be withheld. It should be changed.

Certainly the state should protect children by keeping private their names and details of alleged abuse. But there is no reason not to have a place people can go to check out group homes before making decisions about placing children there. The database could contain the number of abuse allegations, their severity and their disposition.

Many children in group homes are troubled. It stands to reason that some allegations will prove untrue. The public deserves to know that. And group homes that are protecting children should have the satisfaction of the public knowing they’ve been cleared of charges.

Ironically, the state pays five times as much money keeping children in group homes than in foster homes, and the outcome is usually inferior. Particularly young children (those up to 13 years of age) are more apt to thrive in foster homes than in group homes. Unfortunately, South Carolina puts children in group homes and institutions at a rate higher than any other state in the country.

Hence the reallocation of money. DSS needs to recruit more foster parents and pay them better. Some receive as little as $12 a day to feed, clothe and care for a child. Only five states pay less for foster care.

By reducing the number of children in group homes significantly, DSS would save tens of millions of dollars that could be used to beef up foster care.

The children under the care of DSS are among the state’s most vulnerable. Many have been abused, yet they are being put in group homes where they risk further abuse. The likelihood of that abuse is classified information.

DSS has a new director. And the Legislature has demonstrated a genuine concern for addressing DSS problems.

It’s time for dramatic changes that will protect children and spend tax dollars more effectively.