South Carolina

Lawsuit forces better treatment for SC’s abused, neglected kids

File photo

A negotiated settlement that parties said will better the lives of South Carolina’s vulnerable children was filed Friday in federal court.

The settlement comes almost 18 months after Children’s Rights, a national child safety watchdog group, and the Columbia-based Appleseed Legal Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 children, alleging massive long-running failures by the S.C. Department of Social Services that have repeatedly endangered children in the agency’s care.

Defendants in the lawsuit were Gov. Nikki Haley and Susan Alford, the DSS director. Attorney Matthew Richardson of Columbia filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 11 plaintiffs, identified as children ages 2-17 who were at that time in the care of the state’s social services system.

It is the second major South Carolina legal settlement announced this week where advocates for vulnerable populations had to sue state officials to stop helpless people from being killed and injured due to oversight failures by state agencies. Earlier this week, the state agreed some $9 million to upgrade treatment of and facilities for mentally ill inmates at state prisons.

The prisoner lawsuit had taken 11 years to reach a settlement. Child care advocates on Friday gave Haley credit for taking the initiative to reach a speedy resolution to the DSS lawsuit in only some 18 months. The settlement still must be approved by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston.

“We commend Gov. Haley and her administration for recognizing the need for change and doing the right thing for kids,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights.

Unlike the prison agreement, the settlement reached Friday does not require specific money to be spent.

However, it commits the state to:

▪  Develop and implement new caseload standards for child social workers. Many workers are still responsible for monitoring 50 children or more.

▪  Upgrading the ways DSS monitors, investigates and takes action when children are abused by their caregiver.

▪  Reducing the number of kids in institutions and placing more in family housing.

▪  Making sure that an effective program is in place for giving children in DSS care regular medical and dental checkups and treatment, as well as given them access to mental health screening and treatment.

As part of the settlement, two recognized child welfare experts will be appointed independent co-monitors. They will issue periodic, public reports on the state’s progress in meeting benchmarks agreed to in the settlement.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said that although the agreement doesn’t set specific financial targets, it’s reasonable to assume if more resources are needed, state officials will work for them in the Legislature.

In any case, Berkowitz said, by coming to an agreement in a relatively short time, the state avoided spending huge amounts of money on legal fees.

“It also is a win for the children of our state, who will not be left in limbo while litigation drags on for years,” Berkowitz said. “Both DSS and foster care have been woefully underfunded for a long time, and we feel confident the governor and the agency are committed to getting the resources that will be needed.”

The action was brought on behalf of 3,400 abused and neglected children under DSS’s case and followed a string of news reports that documented numerous cases of children under DSS care who were killed or injured as a result of various kinds of mismanagement and underfunding.

Under state law DSS is charged with protecting children under the age of 18 from abuse and neglect. It has caseworkers who visit families with children who are suspected of being abused and may even be in danger of dying. Many children are placed in foster or group homes, and DSS is supposed to have workers who specifically oversee their safety and well-being.

The agency now has 4,100 children under its care. It has a staff of 3,995, according to DSS figures.

The lawsuit specifically targeted three areas: the shortage of foster homes, excessive caseworker caseloads and inadequate health care for children.

Last year, in response to continuing reports of deaths, the lawsuit and other public criticism, Haley and the Legislature began to take steps to better fund the agency and give it more resources.

And last September, the lawsuit prompted Haley and Alford to reach an interim agreement with the plaintiffs.

In that that “consent immediate interim relief” agreement agree, Haley and Alford agreed to

▪  Complete a study spelling out how many children each DSS caseworker can manage, and adopt workload limits within 180 days. A considerable number of DSS caseworkers are said to have far more children assigned to them than they can manage.

▪  Draw up a plan within 60 days to prevent children age 6 and under from being placed in non-family group homes. DSS will have another 60 days to implement that plan.

▪  Phase out the use of hotels, motels and DSS offices as overnight resting places for children in DSS care within 60 days.

The Legislature also increased DSS’s funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The agency will get $715 million next year, up from $694 million this year.

A press release by Children’s Rights when the suit was filed said that DSS had the highest rate in the country for placing children 12 and under in institutions, including detention centers with prisoners, instead of in homes. South Carolina children under DSS care were also repeatedly shuffled around, placed far from relatives and siblings were broken up and denied visits with each other, advocacy groups said.

The lawsuit also said that DSS had so few case workers – people who visit the children in foster homes – that maltreatment in foster care often goes uninvestigated, meaning there is a much higher rate of abuse and neglect that the state actually reports to the federal government.

Although DSS has for many years been the subject of criticism for being underfunded and mishandling children in its care, that criticism has escalated in recent years as more cases of child deaths became known, and more people began speaking out.

In late 2014, a Legislative Audit Council report concluded that DSS relied heavily on unreliable data but has failed to ask for extra money and ignores growing problems. The audit also found that caseloads in the child welfare agency are excessive and that the agency doesn’t do enough to ensure children in its care are placed in safe homes.

The report also said DSS keeps unreliable data and, consequently, no one can say with certainty exactly how many children were dying on the agency’s watch.

In a statement Friday, Haley said, "There is nothing more important than the safety of our children and our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those under the care of DSS. Whether it's increasing the number of caseworkers or working with partners across state government and in our communities, we remain focused on strengthening DSS.

Haley continued, “This settlement agreement represents yet another step in this process, and I applaud the work Director Alford and her team do everyday."

DSS director Alford released a statement, which said her agency has been working on “sustainable reforms” for two years now.

The settlement announced Friday is “the next step in its ongoing reforms,” Alford said. “This plan will guide the Department’s efforts to contribute to improve services for children, and we are grateful to our partners across the state who will work in tandem with us to achieve the outcomes our children deserve.”:

Lawyers negotiating for the state included Becky Laffitte and Butch Bowers of Columbia.