No delays on fixing DSS

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

Key state lawmakers have promised long-needed reform at the Department of Social Services. And Gov. Nikki Haley is finally on board about the Cabinet agency’s serious need for more money.

A full course correction can’t happen too soon for the beleaguered agency.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said last week that DSS reform should be a top priority for the General Assembly this session. Among other things, DSS needs 200 new positions filled.

Gov. Haley has included funding in her budget proposal, released Monday, for the necessary DSS employees.

But while Sen. Tom Alexander, R-Oconee, chairman of the Senate Finance/Health and Human Services Subcommittee, agreed DSS needs attention, he cautioned that full reform might not happen in one year.

The stories of children who have died while under DSS supervision should give every legislator the necessary incentive to get the department as much help as quickly as possible.

And then there are the devastating cases of children under the care of DSS going without basic health care and being moved from one foster home to another to another, some where they are harmed physically, psychologically and emotionally.

There is a critical shortage of foster homes, meaning that children are placed in institutions instead. Children 12 years old and under are institutionalized in South Carolina at a rate higher than in any other state in the nation. And complaints about maltreatment have gone uninvestigated.

National advocacy organization Children’s Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Matthew T. Richardson, partner at the South Carolina law firm Wyche P.A., along with 11 named children from age 2 to 17 who are under DSS supervision, have filed a lawsuit against the governor and the acting director of DSS, asserting these unacceptable inadequacies.

Sen. Lourie doesn’t need convincing. He chairs the Senate panel that oversees DSS. He spoke about DSS with media representatives from across the state at a legislative workshop in Columbia last Thursday.

The committee’s struggle last year to obtain accurate data from DSS regarding caseloads borne by DSS workers raised a red flag. Ultimately it was revealed that 58 percent of workers had caseloads exceeding state standards.

Since then, some of the most critical changes have been made. The director resigned and an assistant is serving as acting director. Additional caseworkers have been hired.

The curious — and devastating — thing, according to Sen. Lourie, is that despite the obvious need, DSS failed to ask for additional caseworkers. DSS reform must address a flawed protocol that leaves such an important issue unaddressed.

It is seldom a popular thing to increase government spending.

But with the very lives of South Carolina’s most vulnerable children at stake, it’s a lot more costly to continue underfunding DSS.