DSS director to continue testimony before panel

The Statehouse

Testimony by the director of the state Department of Social Services continues Wednesday at 9 a.m., as a Senate panel continues its investigation into the agency's practices.

DSS Director Lillian Koller will go before the Senate's DSS Oversight Committee for a second time since returning from a medical leave that kept her from testifying for months. She is expected to face tough questions following the announcement of an intervention at the Richland County DSS office and the death of an infant in Richland County.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said he wants to know more about the agency's caseloads for its field workers, a number that has varied depending on who has reported it. Lourie has said in past hearings, workers have reported having as many as 40 to 50 cases, while DSS officials have said the average caseload statewide is six.

Further, Gov. Nikki Haley said last week she is taking a more hands-on approach with Richland County DSS, which includes improving communication between law enforcement and the office.

"I want to know what we're doing statewide," Lourie said. "This is a 46-county problem. Yes, we're ground zero, but this is not a one-county problem."

Haley announced changes for the Richland County office following a case in April in which an infant died while a DSS staffer was searching for the baby's family.

Five-month-old Bryson Webb died in his car seat on April 22, after he stopped breathing. His mother, 28-year-old Jennifer Coles, is now facing charges of homicide by child abuse or neglect, after being arrested initially on charges of unlawful conduct toward a child.

Following the arrest of Coles, Koller implemented a policy change, requiring caseworkers to contact law enforcement when a child can't be found within 72 hours.

Lourie said he wants to hear from Koller what plan of action she intends to implement to improve the agency beyond Richland County.

"Director Koller is looking forward to the opportunity to discuss with the Senate Sub-Committee the many ways DSS is continuously working to improve and reform its practices to provide the best safety and support to South Carolina children and families," said Marilyn Matheus, spokeswoman for DSS in a written statement. "Properly and fully protecting the at-risk children of this state cannot be done by DSS alone and the agency welcomes assistance from the legislature and our community partners as we work toward the day that we can say that no children are being neglected or abused in South Carolina."

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Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, also a panel member, said she too wants to hear more about the changes in Richland County.

"It's great to make changes in one county, but we have problems across the state," Shealy said.

Haley said the office was getting 20 back-up workers from surrounding counties until a new group of workers that are being trained arrives. Both Lourie and Shealy say they want details as to where those workers are being pulled from. Shealy added she wants to learn more about adoptions and foster care at the agency.

Shealy and Lourie have called on Haley to fire Koller. Lourie has asked for Koller's ouster since March, while Shealy began to echo his sentiment after the first time Koller testified.

"I'm going to keep pushing for change," Lourie said. "I know what we're doing right now, not only is it not working, it's failing."

Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.