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Agency Has ‘Demonstrated a Commitment to Reforming Its Foster Care System,’ but ‘In the Vast Majority of Areas…a Lot of Work Needs to Be Done,’ According to Report
(Charleston, S.C.) — Independent monitors filed their first report today on South Carolina’s efforts to reform its foster care system, noting that while the Department of Social Services (DSS) has made progress, many challenges remain.
The monitoring report, covering October 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017, is the result of federal foster care reform lawsuit Michelle H. and others v. McMaster and Alford, which seeks improvements on behalf of all 4,000 children in foster care statewide. U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel approved a settlement in October 2016, and appointed two national child welfare experts to issue periodic reports that assess the state’s performance in meeting mandated improvements and benchmarks.
The report noted that “DSS and its staff have demonstrated a commitment to reforming its foster care system,” and cited several areas of progress, including substantial reductions in the number of children in foster care under age 6 who are housed in facilities and institutions, as well as a reduction in the use of hotels to house children in state care.
However, monitors also said, “In the vast majority of areas … a lot of work needs to be done.” The monitors found that there “is not a sufficient array of appropriate placement resources in most areas of the state to allow children to be placed close to their families and communities; lapses exist in the provision of diagnostic, preventative and ongoing health care to children; quality issues are present in the screening and investigation of reports of abuse or neglect of foster children; and there are a lack of reliable child welfare data.” The independent monitors also recognized that “though data integrity and methodology issues have made it impossible … to calculate worker caseloads this reporting period, DSS acknowledges that caseworker caseloads throughout the state far exceed agreed upon standards.”
“We are united in our desire to see progress under the settlement, which means better lives and outcomes for the young people DSS serves,” said Sue Berkowitz, Executive Director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and a member of the plaintiff counsel team. “We are eager to sit down with DSS leadership and talk through these challenges so that we can implement solutions that best support and protect our children.”
Specific issues highlighted in the report include:
- Overburdened caseworkers: 670 additional caseworkers are needed to meet the caseload standards required in the Settlement, which includes a limit of eight investigations per investigator and 15 children per foster care caseworker.
- Faulty abuse investigations: A review of allegations of children maltreated in foster care found that only 44 percent of decisions to “screen out” maltreatment reports were appropriate. When reports were investigated, fewer than half of “unfounded” allegations were determined appropriately, potentially leaving children at risk.
- Overdue health check-ups and treatment: DSS was required to do a “clean up” of children overdue for their initial check-ups when they first entered foster care and to arrange for any overdue treatment immediately. However, as of the January 2016 deadline, of the 168 children overdue for initial physical health assessment, only 10 percent received the check-up in 30 days; of the 690 children overdue for initial dental check-ups, only 15 percent received the check-up in 30 days; and of the 740 children overdue for an initial mental health assessment, only 6 percent received the screening in 30 days.
- Sibling separation: 30 percent of children entering foster care with siblings weren’t placed with any of those siblings. Of those separated from all or some of their siblings, only 47 percent had the required visits with them.
- Serious data problems: “Issues with the quality of documentation and the integrity of CAPSS [the DSS data system] … are pervasive.” The monitors “have significant concerns with the way in which some data are entered by caseworkers or, in some cases, not entered at all.” There is also no reliable baseline data on important measures such as caseworker caseloads, the number of children with immediate treatment needs, the length of time children are housed in emergency shelters, the frequency of children’s moves among homes and facilities, and the frequency with which children with a goal of reunification get to visit their parents.
National advocacy organization 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., filed Michelle H. v. McMaster in January 2015. The settlement requires improvements in the areas of caseloads and safety oversight, the placement and housing of children in foster care, and the delivery of health care for these children. Co-Monitors Paul Vincent of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group and Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy will provide reports on performance under the settlement agreement approximately every six months.
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Fighting to transform America’s failing child welfare, juvenile justice, education and healthcare systems is one of the most important social justice movements of our time. Through strategic advocacy and legal action, Children’s Rights holds state governments accountable to America’s most vulnerable children. A national watchdog organization since 1995, the non-profit has secured court orders to achieve critical reforms in more than a dozen child welfare systems throughout the country. www.childrensrights.org
South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center is a forceful and respected advocate for low-income South Carolinians on issues such as housing, education, hunger, public benefits, domestic violence, immigration, health care and consumer issues. SC Appleseed is dedicated to effecting systemic change wherever we can do the most good – in and through the courthouse, legislature, administrative agencies, community and the media. We grow our impact by helping others do the same through education, training and co-counseling. www.scjustice.org
Matthew Richardson is one of the top attorneys in South Carolina and has served as president of two of the state’s largest legal organizations. Wyche, P.A. is a full-service law firm that has participated in landmark litigation and cutting-edge transactions, and that has been shaping and driving the region’s growth and success for more than 90 years. www.wyche.com