Reports of children starved to death, sexually abused for months and dying of treatable illness prompted a local legislator Monday to call for an audit of the state Department of Social Services.
“I represent all the children of this state. It’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed,” said state Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville.
Horne called on the Legislative Audit Council to take a closer look at how DSS manages cases involving at-risk children. On Monday, the council agreed in a unanimous vote during a meeting in Charleston.
Although the audit will look at a number of concerns at DSS, the request for it focuses extensively on child safety.
“This is really more of a look at Child Protective Services,” Horne said.
Her concerns are based on constituent complaints about how cases involving children in harmful situations have been managed.
“We’ve had way too many dead children lately,” she said. “Children of this state are being placed at great risk.”
Horne said she discussed her concerns with DSS leaders, and they have shown a willingness to work with her to address her worries. The last audit of the agency was in 2006, she said.
“I think they (DSS) need another look,” she said. “Where there is smoke there is fire.”
More than 30 members of the state House Republican Caucus, including Horne, expressed concerns about child protection in South Carolina in a three-page letter to the council.
The letter asks whether federal and state laws and regulations pertaining to child protective services are being followed by county DSS offices. It seeks information on children who died from abuse and/or neglect during a DSS investigation. It also asks for a review of cases initially deemed unfounded by DSS but later found to involve child abuse and/or neglect.
In addition, caucus members who signed the letter want details of cases that were closed after a child was placed with a relative of a family under investigation. The letter cites an instance in which a child was placed by DSS with a registered sex offender who abused the youngster for 15 months. It also raised concerns about a child admitted to a hospital instead of being placed in a safe home.
“Why does the DSS fail to utilize these resources when a child is at risk of trauma?” the letter asks.
After hearing from Horne, council Vice Chairman Mallory Factor of Charleston made a motion to approve the DSS audit. Council member S. Jahue Moore of Lexington said he “wholeheartedly” endorsed the audit.
The audit will begin in January or February, officials said.
DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said the agency would not be able to comment on plans for the audit until today.
DSS Director Lillian Koller said on the department website that it has eliminated a backlog of nearly 25,000 child abuse and neglect reports pending for 60 days or longer.
She also cites an agency goal to reduce the number of children who experience maltreatment within six months of an investigation in which allegations of abuse or neglect are determined to be unfounded. The number of children in that category needed to fall from 700 to no more than 446 by Sept. 30 of this year, she said.
“While DSS is meeting or exceeding all of the child safety measures imposed by the federal government, there is real cause for concern in an area that the federal government does not measure. By adopting this child safety measure, DSS is now leading the nation in this area,” she said.
The caucus letter seeks a particular focus in the audit on a sample of county DSS offices and how child neglect and/or abuse cases were handled from 2006 to 2012. Other areas of concern include employee and caseworker training as it relates to child welfare.
The lawmakers also seek information about complaints caucus members have received regarding bidding for group home contracts and federal penalties imposed on DSS.
The Legislative Audit Council conducts independent, objective performance audits of state agencies and programs. Its purpose is to assist the General Assembly and the public in determining whether state agencies are efficiently, effectively and lawfully managing public resources and meeting their intended objectives.