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Major Issues Plague South Carolina Foster Care System, But Latest Report Notes Opportunity for Change

Contact: Daniel Kessel, 646-216-3343, dkessel@childrensrights.org

(Charleston, S.C.) — A new report finds that South Carolina’s Department of Social Services (DSS) continues to lag behind court-ordered requirements to improve the state’s child welfare system, but notes that if adequately resourced, DSS is in a position to potentially “transform” care for the more than 4,500 children in state custody.

The monitoring report, filed today in federal court, covers April 1 to September 30, 2018. The report is the fourth filed by court-appointed, independent co-monitors and is the result of the federal foster care reform lawsuit Michelle H. v. McMaster, which seeks improvements on behalf of all children in foster care statewide. U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel approved a settlement in October 2016 in which the parties agreed to much-needed sweeping reforms, and also appointed two national child welfare experts to monitor progress and issue periodic reports that assess the state’s performance in meeting mandated improvements and benchmarks.

Performance data for the current monitoring period show a child welfare system still in dire need of improvement. While newly appointed DSS Director Michael Leach and recently approved Implementation Plans offer a new path toward necessary reforms, the current monitoring report presents areas of grave concern for children in state care. Key areas of concern include vastly overburdened caseworkers, a troubling lack of family visitation, and inadequate data infrastructure, all of which put children at risk of harm.

Children’s Rights remains hopeful that under Director Leach’s leadership, DSS can accelerate progress and quickly meet needed deliverables.

“It’s extremely troubling that for thousands of children, DSS’s lack of progress has kept them in serious danger over two years into the reform process,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children’s Rights. “We look forward to working with Director Michael Leach, who has experience overseeing significant improvements to the child welfare system in Tennessee and is poised to help South Carolina navigate similar problems. But the challenges are grave, and DSS will require significant resources to transform DSS into a system that truly serves the needs of vulnerable children.”

While DSS has made progress in a few areas—for example, the agency has taken proactive steps to improve child abuse intake practices and has ceased its previous practice of placing children in hotels—several areas remain problematic:

  • Unmanageable Caseloads: South Carolina caseworkers continue to be severely overburdened. As of September 28, 2018, only 15% of caseworkers, 11% of adoption caseworkers, and no child abuse investigators had caseloads within the established case limits. Moreover, problems remain in hiring and retaining caseworkers. While DSS has crafted a plan for improvement in this area, significant resources will be required to realize that vision.
  • Lack of Family Visitation: Unmanageable caseloads are also contributing to poor performance in the area of kinship visitation. Disturbingly, children placed in foster care are not given the opportunity to visit with family members. According to the report, “a staggering 93 percent of children in foster care did not have the opportunity to visit with their parent(s) twice a month.” Furthermore, only 42% of required visits between siblings took place.
  • Inadequate Data Infrastructure: DSS continues have difficulty tracking key child welfare data, which contributes to an inability to assess the status and address the needs of South Carolina’s children. In the area of healthcare, for example, DSS still lacks necessary data on children’s’ immediate treatment needs, medical check-ups and follow-up care. Furthermore, DSS is unable to track youth moving from Juvenile Justice placement to foster care, cannot track data on therapeutic homes, and is not yet able to reliably measure the use of emergency or temporary placements.

“Once again, these findings represent an alarming lack of progress in our child welfare system,” said Sue Berkowitz, executive director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “While we understand reform won’t happen overnight, two and a half years into this process the system remains grossly inadequate for our state’s children and families. We sincerely hope Director Leach’s leadership can drive the reform process forward.”

The report notes that in February and March 2019, DSS finalized meaningful plans to improve the areas of workforce, placement, visitation, and components of healthcare. These plans are designed to “serve as a roadmap for an improved South Carolina child welfare system with the potential to better meet the needs of the children and families it is intended to serve.”

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About Children’s Rights: Every day, children are harmed in America’s broken child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, Children’s Rights holds governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. For more information, please visit 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 in private practice with Wyche, P.A., 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

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