The S.C. Department of Social Services failed to meet all seven federal benchmarks measuring the agency’s ability to serve abused and neglected children, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
A longtime Columbia children’s law attorney who was interviewed for the federal study called the results "pretty significant."
"They (DSS) have a real hard time identifying the kids and families who truly need intervention, and the kids and their parents who could be left alone or left alone with some basic services," attorney Jay Elliott told The Nerve when contacted last week.
Elliott, past chairman of the S.C. Bar’s Children’s Law Committee, said the federal report, known as the Child and Family Services Review, highlights the need to combine various state agencies that deal with children’s issues, including DSS’ Child Protective Services division and the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, into one department.
Illinois officials last month announced that its juvenile justice department would merge with its Department of Children and Family Services, he pointed out.
"I think reorganizing the state’s child welfare system to create a department of children, youth and family services would go a long way to elevating the amount and quality of services to kids and their parents," Elliott said.
Asked why DSS failed to meet the federal benchmarks, department spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus in a written response to The Nerve said South Carolina’s performance was not out of line with the results in other states, noting the report is based on two rounds of reviews.
"No state has passed all measures on the CFSR in Round One, nor has any state passed all of the outcome measures in Round 2," she said.
Matheus referred The Nerve to the department’s initial prepared statement last month after the final report for South Carolina was released.
In that press release, the department acknowledged: "Despite concerted efforts by the staff of DSS and sister agencies and communities across our state, our child welfare system is falling short of what we believe it needs to do. Our state has not invested the resources it needs to meet the treatment, protection and prevention needs of families where children are at risk."
Matheus told The Nerve that in response to the federal report, the department is "in the process of developing a Program Improvement Plan to address the areas needing improvement," adding, "We are in the midst of negotiating the terms of that plan with the federal Administration for Children and Families."
A spokesman for the federal agency did not respond last week to written questions by The Nerve.
Not in 'Substantial Conformity'
The federal report on South Carolina’s child welfare program found that DSS was not in "substantial conformity" in all seven "safety, well-being and permanency outcomes."
The study, conducted the week of July 27, 2009, was based on reviews of 40 foster care and 25 in-home services cases in Aiken, Beaufort and Greenville counties, along with interviews with parents, children, foster and adoptive parents, child welfare officials and others, the report said.
The seven benchmarks that DSS failed to meet were, according to the report:
- Safety Outcome 1 – "Children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect."
- Safety Outcome 2 – "Children are safely maintained in their homes when possible and appropriate."
- Permanency Outcome 1 – "Children have permanency and stability in their living situations."
- Permanency Outcome 2 – "The continuity of family relationships and connections is preserved."
- Well-Being Outcome 1 – "Families have enhanced capacity to provide for children’s needs."
- Well-Being Outcome 2 – "Children receive services to meet their educational needs."
- Well-Being Outcome 3 – "Children receive services to meet their physical and mental health needs."
To be in "substantial conformity" in any given category, 95 percent of the applicable cases in that group must have been rated as having been in "substantial conformity with the outcome," according to the report.
The department was given the lowest ratings in sub-categories dealing with adoption; assessing the needs of children, parents and foster parents; allowing children in foster care to visit with parents and siblings; family involvement in case planning; and caseworker visits with parents, the report said.
The report’s executive summary said DSS’ performance was "fairly high" in one category (meeting educational needs of children) and several other sub-categories, though it didn’t meet the overall benchmarks.
It also noted that the agency met five of seven benchmarks in another part of the study that dealt with its information, staff training, licensing and community responsiveness programs.
"HHS acknowledges the hard work and progress of South Carolina in making positive changes in its practice and enhancing services to children and families served by the child welfare system," the executive summary said.
But Elliott said those observations should not downplay the seriousness of the report’s findings.
"To say, ‘We came pretty close in two or three areas,’ obscures the fact that overall they flunked," he said.
DSS didn’t do much better in its last federal review in 2003, failing to meet benchmarks in six of the seven categories dealing with services to abused and neglected children, according to that report.
In a double dose of bad news, the department received the latest federal report on March 5, the same day the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in a groundbreaking opinion that S.C. DSS employees could be sued for not protecting children in foster care from mistreatment.
Elliott said part of the problem is that DSS caseworkers handling abuse and neglect cases typically are not licensed social workers, adding some of them have been transferred from other DSS divisions.
He also said although DSS Director Kathleen Hayes is "probably one of the most competent, skilled child welfare people in the country," he believes she is not paying enough attention to the Child Protective Services division because she is "distracted" with dealing with the agency’s other large divisions, such as the welfare payments system.
Responding to those claims, Matheus said: "DSS has never wavered in its commitment to child protective services. Being a licensed social worker is not a requirement for DSS child welfare caseworkers. However, we are currently involved in a statewide partnership with all the colleges and universities in South Carolina that offer bachelor and/or master of social work degrees."
On any given day, the agency oversees about 5,400 children in foster care and another 11,000 through family treatment services, the department said in a separate release.
Over the last fiscal year, the department cared for a total of 9,356 children in foster care and 24,713 children in family treatment services, the release said.
In calendar year 2009, the department received more than 28,000 referrals for child abuse or neglect, accepting 18,000 referrals for investigation involving more than 30,500 children, according to the release.
Abuse or neglect was found in about 7,000 investigations involving more than 12,700 children, the release said.
Preliminary department figures for last fiscal year show that 1,717 children statewide were waiting for adoption, including 677 children legally free for adoption.
As a comparison, there were nearly 100 fewer children waiting for adoption in South Carolina in fiscal year 2005, records show.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or firstname.lastname@example.org.