Editorial | South Carolina’s DSS director needed to go; now let’s get to work

The following editorial appeared Friday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:

Protecting vulnerable children from abuse and neglect is one of the most important tasks we assign state government. But that goal isn’t being met in South Carolina.

Case in point: Last year, a 4-year-old Columbia boy, Robert Guinyard Jr., was beaten and starved to death by his parents who broke his bones and beat him with a metal rod, according to investigators and prosecutors involved in the case. He was so thirsty he drank out of a toilet and so hungry he ate from a trash can, they said.

In the final months of the child’s hellish life, at least five relatives and others who knew of the boy’s situation repeatedly contacted the state’s Department of Social Services, begging for the agency charged with protecting vulnerable children to intervene, to take the boy out of the home, to do something, according to the lawyers.

But that didn’t happen.

The child’s death, along with another in Richland County and a third in Charleston County, are part of investigation by a state Senate committee. Since January, the senators have been looking into complaints that the agency is not fulfilling its obligation to protect and advocate for needy children.

Adequate evidence has been presented to surmise that the agency is certainly not running properly and is in need of a complete overhaul. Time is of the essence, as there’s a likelihood of a repeat of Robert’s death. DSS workers are grappling with giant case loads. Newly released DSS data, requested by the senators, shows that there are two staffers in Beaufort County with more than 60 cases each; six staffers with 50 or more children in Pickens County; 11 with more than 50 in Spartanburg County, including one with 88 children … the size of case loads across the state is staggering.

Add to it that each case can involve more than one child and that a caseworker must see each child every month, and you can quickly see how the agency is failing in its mission.

But instead of asking for help and state money to lessen loads, DSS staff, under its director Lillian Koller, offered misleading data to the senators. The agency originally claimed that the average case load per worker was six. We’re glad the senators didn’t buy it and pushed for the truth.

“There are some caseworkers, that as of May 21 (2014) had over a hundred children that they were required to see and be responsible for within their case load,” Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, who heads the Senate committee, told The S.C. Radio Network this week.

A few changes have resulted from the hearings:

–Eight staffers are no longer at DSS following Robert’s death.

–The agency must give regular reports to the legislature on case loads. It must also quickly seek help from law enforcement to locate children who may be in danger.

–Koller, DSS' director and a Gov. Nikki Haley appointee, resigned from the $154,900 post on Monday.

We’re disappointed that Haley defended Koller instead of firing her. The governor missed an important opportunity to show child welfare matters and to head up reforms at the troubled agency.

Instead, Haley touted Koller’s successes and has focused on improvements just in Richland County. Haley’s plan includes hiring 20 caseworkers during the next five months to work in that one county.

But the problem isn’t limited to Richland County. Agency critics make a compelling case that the agency suffers from statewide understaffing, lack of funding and mismanagement. An emphasis on meeting statistical goals instead of doing the messy and complex work of advocating for the state’s most defenseless citizens has resulted in tragedy.

Before another child dies, DSS must be remade – as recommended by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a Senate committee member. That should include state money to adequately staff the agency, a new emphasis on children and not numbers, a sense of urgency in helping authorities investigate child deaths and a guarantee that when a report is made of abuse or neglect, the agency jumps into action.

Young has said his committee will recommend a series of reforms to the General Assembly before the year is over. He and other lawmakers are intent on making big changes.

We hope Haley will get on board with the effort. She may be hesitant to agree to an overhaul that is being primarily advocated by Democrats, including her likely Democratic opponent, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw. Some have said the highlighting of the agency’s problems is election-year politics.

That may be true. But that doesn’t mean the problems are not real, and that a state agency is not failing in its function. Strong gubernatorial leadership and bipartisan legislative support are a must at this time. We look to our leaders for it.