Child fatality review teams would quickly identify at-risk homes

The South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — As many as 800 children die each year in South Carolina and lawmakers are considering creating local review committees to study those deaths and, potentially, the need to remove other children from dangerous homes.

Laura Hudson, with the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council, told a Senate panel Wednesday that county coroners need the ability to properly identify suspicious child deaths within a week so they can address any danger at the home.

The teams would be made of representatives from the coroner’s office, law enforcement, child abuse professionals and the S.C. Department of Social Services. Teams would report findings to the State Child Fatality Advisory Committee.

“DSS wanted to ensure that they got information rapidly so they can see if they had any involvement in that case, because then they would launch an internal investigation,” Hudson said.

DSS spokeswoman Karen Wingo said the teams will give the department tools to improve their efforts if the agency has been involved with the child before. It also would enable staff to respond to the needs of any surviving siblings in the home.

Wingo said the bill would not create any additional staffing needs.

Hudson said that of the 700 to 800 deaths, which include those aged 17 and younger, the State Law Enforcement Division reviews between 160 and 210 each year that meet their criteria, which includes being of a suspicious nature, caused by sudden infant death syndrome or due to violence.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, who serves as the legislative liaison for the S.C. Coroners Association, said it’s also important that coroners work full time — especially if they are to implement the review committees. Of the state’s 46 coroners, only 12 work full time.

“What we’ve always run into has been a disparaging difference between funding in offices allowing full-time coroners as they’re paid, compared to part-time coroners,” he said. “We all know that every coroner is full time, because you get called (and) you have to go.”

A related budget proviso has been proposed that would send $35,000 to each coroner’s office in the state to be used to either make part-time coroners into full time posts, or, when there already is a full-time coroner, bolster the pay of those working part time.

The bill will be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.