COLUMBIA — South Carolina's child-welfare agencies are on the verge of getting a new watchdog to ensure they are doing their jobs.
The General Assembly sent a bill to Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday creating a new state agency that lawmakers say should save lives and provide South Carolinians one stop for complaints.
"We want to make sure children are getting the help they need from the state," said Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville. "We're trying to create independent oversight."
More than 230 employees in four existing state programs would transfer to the new Department of Children's Advocacy, easing fears in a Republican-dominated Legislature that usually opposes growing government and adding employees.
The only new position created — an agency director — would likely cost taxpayers $110,000 a year, according to the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.
The bill tasks the advocacy agency with investigating any time a child dies or is seriously injured — physically or mentally — while receiving state services or in state custody.
The new agency also will take complaints over a new, toll-free hotline that departments — such as Social Services, Mental Health, Juvenile Justice, Disabilities and Special Needs, and the state's Medicaid agency must post on their websites and in their offices.
"They can help you solve those problems instead of calling every number in the Southeast trying to figure out who to call," said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
Bannister said legislators are "inundated with complaints" about child service agencies.
"The more we respond, the more complaints we get of how agencies are run or about children who have fallen through the cracks," he said. While not all complaints are legitimate, he said, a common theme is callers' frustration over an agency's lack of response.
"The citizens who deal with these agencies will like having an independent office they can call and say, 'Let me tell you my story. Help me,'" Bannister said.
The Senate approved the bill in February. The House made no changes, allowing it to head to McMaster, who will sign it, his spokesman said.
Shealy considers the law an extension of her work on a Senate oversight panel of DSS that ultimately required massive changes in that state’s main child-welfare agency.
Four years ago, then-DSS Director Lillian Koller resigned amid legislative hearings that focused on children's deaths and the caseloads of overwhelmed employees who were sometimes responsible for more than 100 children at a time.
Senators, including Shealy, were incensed that Koller continued to argue caseloads were low and that the agency needed no additional money, despite deep cuts amid the Great Recession.
In 2016, the agency settled a federal lawsuit accusing it of endangering the nearly 3,400 children in its care. Director Susan Alford, who took the helm in 2015, called the settlement the next step in ongoing reforms, which included hiring caseworkers and creating regional call centers for reporting abuse.
DSS promised, among other things, to increase face-to-face visits between caseworkers and children, to investigate alleged abuse quicker, to stop placing children in hotels and office buildings for overnight stays, and to quit keeping kids in juvenile jail beyond their sentence just because the agency has nowhere to put them.
Keeping children safe involves more than DSS, said Rep. Laurie Funderburk, D-Camden.
The state needs an "umbrella agency that's making sure all the parts are working how they should," she said. "Our children deserve the best. They deserve to have a system that works well and makes sure they're safe and find permanent homes."
The bill transfers employees from four programs now housed in the Department of Administration, including its Continuum of Care for Emotionally Disturbed Children, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Foster Care Review Board, and guardian ad litems, who are appointed to represent children's best interests in court.
The governor's pick to run the new agency must be confirmed by the Senate.