Rapid response to child abuse

Susan Alford, 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/File)

When a child dies under suspicious circumstances, it is critical for authorities to respond swiftly.

If the cause of death is abuse or neglect, other children in the same household could be in danger. Waiting for coroners, who are often dealing with homicides, to assess the situation could mean the difference between life and death.

DSS Director Susan Alford wants to ensure that doesn’t happen, so she is working with lawmakers to establish rapid-response teams to investigate those cases immediately.

The Legislature, which finally began focusing additional attention on the Department of Social Services’ troubles a year ago, should see this as a necessary tool for keeping the state’s vulnerable children safe.

And the public should feel encouraged that Ms. Alford, who took the job in February, has added staff and is looking for ways to improve services for children.

The picture was a lot more grim when she took over. Then-director Lillian Koller angered senators by withholding information and refusing to tell them even hard facts like the size of DSS employees’ workloads.

Finally, she resigned.

The Senate DSS Oversight Committee stayed on the case, and some child advocacy groups sued DSS on behalf of 11 children they say were variously abused, overmedicated, separated from their siblings, kept in solitary confinement and fed moldy food. The suit also contends DSS had an inadequate number of foster homes and that foster children’s basic health care needs were not being tended to.

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Child advocates are guardedly optimistic about the direction DSS is now taking. The rapid-response teams, which would include a forensic pediatrician specifically trained to identify the nature of suspicious bruises or bone fractures in children, is an example. Certainly DSS and law enforcement authorities both need that information to do their jobs.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, is a member of the Senate subcommittee and she is hopeful that Ms. Alford can make a difference. “I’m not going to question what she’s done there until I see the outcome,” she said.

But lawmakers need to do more than wait and see. They need to make sure the agency is adequately funded and staffed. They should have zero tolerance for another child being neglected or abused — or allowed to die — under the supervision of DSS.

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