Landmark Settlement ‘A Huge Step Forward’ for Kids in South Carolina

Attorneys from CR, South Carolina Appleseed and Wyche, P.A. celebrate in front of the U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston, SC. From left to right: Ira Lustbader, Steve Suggs, Sue Berkowitz, Matthew Richardson, Christina Remlin, Kate Wood and Dione Brabham.

Attorneys from CR, South Carolina Appleseed and Wyche, P.A. celebrate in front of the U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston, SC. From left to right: Ira Lustbader, Steve Suggs, Sue Berkowitz, Matthew Richardson, Christina Remlin, Kate Wood and Dione Brabham.

For decades, a drastic shortage of foster homes has plagued South Carolina’s Department of Social Services (DSS), causing a shocking number of kids — even those as young as 5 — to be institutionalized. Caseworkers are so overburdened, with many workers responsible for over 50 kids at a time, that maltreatment often goes uninvestigated.

These unconscionable circumstances prompted Children’s Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Matthew T. Richardson, an attorney with the South Carolina law Firm Wyche, P.A., to file a federal class action lawsuit in January 2015. By October 2016 we had a break-through victory. A landmark agreement was reached on behalf of 3,400 children in the case known as Michelle H. v. Haley.

The agreement was the result of more than a year of intense negotiations and promises vital changes, including ensuring reasonable caseloads, improving investigations of abuse allegations, preventing children 6 and under from being placed in institutions and revamping health care so that all children get the medical, dental, and mental health screenings and treatment they need. The settlement also makes final a set of interim relief that was negotiated last September. This includes phasing out dangerous practices such as letting children in state custody stay over-night in hotels and DSS offices and allowing foster kids to remain in juvenile detention facilities, even though they have completed their sentences or pleas, due to having no place to house them.

“This settlement is a huge step forward for kids in foster care in South Carolina,” said Christina Remlin, senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights. “Governor Haley and DSS Director Alford deserve credit for coming to the table early and committing to large-scale changes, which will vastly improve safety and outcomes for the young people in their care.”

Two national child welfare experts, Paul Vincent of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group and Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, have been appointed as independent co-monitors as a result of the settlement and will be issuing periodic public reports on the state’s progress.

“This result is an excellent example of legal advocacy leveling the playing field,” said Richardson. “There is nothing more important or gratifying than knowing these children, the very future of the state of South Carolina, will receive the attention and resources they need to thrive.”

Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, echoed that sentiment: “We partnered in this effort because of the dire need to bring accountability to DSS. There’s a lot of hard work ahead but, with children’s very lives at stake, the end result will clearly make the effort worthwhile.”

Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: http://www.childrensrights.org/publication/notes-from-the-field-fall-2016/