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(Charleston, S.C.) — The latest Monitoring Report on the progress of the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) in satisfying its obligations outlined in the Final Settlement Agreement (FSA) entered in the Michelle H., et al. v. McMaster and Leach systemic reform case, has been released. The report covers DSS performance during the period April 1 through September 30, 2019.
The Co-Monitors describe the last few month as “productive and promising” and credit new DSS Director Michael Leach, who was appointed in April 2019, for bringing “fresh energy to this work at a critical time, combining the need to listen and learn from those working on the ground in South Carolina with his own ideas, experiences, and direction for change.” He has also built up DSS’s leadership team, and is empowering existing managers in key areas to take action.
DSS has made progress on some of its FSA commitments, despite significant resource constraints, and worked to do as much as possible to position itself to quickly proceed with more comprehensive reform in hopes that it will receive the funding it needs and has requested in the FY2020-2021 budget. There is an improved staffing structure in place; the stage is set for beginning to place more children with family members and involve families more directly in decision-making; key community partnerships are being forged with private providers and health care professionals; and several programs are strengthening DSS’s ability to meet children’s health care needs.
Despite these significant accomplishments in laying the groundwork for change, the Co-Monitors report that serious problems remain. Caseloads have fallen, but overall remain egregiously high. There has been some improvements in investigating allegations of abuse by institutions or foster parents, but understaffing continues to hamper this critical work. And while DSS’s work to meet children’s health care needs has recently gained traction, many children and youth remain in placements unmatched to their clinical needs.
The report further notes that placement of children in group facilities and institutional housing have fallen slightly, but children are experiencing even more placement moves than before, are less likely to be placed with their siblings, and children and families continue to be subject to long periods of time without contact. The gap between some initial changes in DSS protocol and approach, and actual outcomes on the ground, are illustrated in the agency’s shockingly poor track record of ensuring visits between parents and foster children who are working towards reunification – in September 2019, only 13% of records reviewed indicated class members visited with all parents with whom reunification is the goal. Meanwhile, South Carolina remains what is likely the lowest performer in the country on recruiting relatives and kin to serve as foster parents, with currently only 42 relatives licensed to care for foster children in a system that has 4,371 children.
The following statement was issued by Ira Lustbader, Litigation Director at Children’s Rights, Susan Berkowitz, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and Matthew T. Richardson, Member, Wyche Law Firm, who are co-counsel in the Michelle H., et al. v. McMaster and Leach case:
“The new DSS leadership hold real promise, and we respect Director Leach’s desire and commitment to set things right at DSS. But this most recent report shows the failure to adequately fund DSS is crippling the agency that must take care of our most vulnerable children. The inadequate resources are contributing to horrific outcomes for foster care kids and families. Most alarming is that foster care children are being denied the chance to be reunited with their parents or to live with relatives and kin, and children are being bounced around to too many placements unnecessarily. These harms are devastating to children who need stability and family-like settings to live and learn and grow. We will continue to work closely with DSS and the monitoring team to push hard to accelerate real, lasting change for children and families in South Carolina and hope the necessary resources are made available now.”
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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.