“Too Little Has Changed” for Children and Families Served by South Carolina Child Welfare System, Latest Report Finds

A “system driven by crisis” requiring urgent work to meet improvements for children in the state’s care

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

(Charleston, S.C.) — Independent, court-appointed monitors filed their second report on South Carolina’s efforts to reform its foster care system, finding that the Department of Social Services (DSS) has not made sufficient progress in many critical areas.

The monitoring report, covering April 1, 2017 to September 30, 2017, is part of the foster care reform lawsuit Michelle H. and others v. McMaster and Alford, which requires improvements on behalf of all the approximately 4,000 children in foster care statewide. U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel approved a Final Settlement Agreement (FSA) in October 2016 and 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.

The new report notes that despite improvements and success in a few areas, “too little has changed for the children, youth and families served by South Carolina’s child welfare system in the two and half years” since the parties entered into an Interim court agreement in September 2015.

The report finds that DSS has “urgent work ahead to improve its performance with respect to nearly all of the FSA measures.” Specific problem areas include inadequate housing and healthcare for children in foster care, severely overburdened caseworkers, and poor data collection.

“We knew the problems were deep when we brought this lawsuit, and this report reveals that initial compliance efforts have so far been slow and ineffective,” said Ira Lustbader, Litigation Director at Children’s Rights. “That must change immediately.”

The report notes that DSS has maintained “its early success in reducing the number of children ages six and under residing in congregate care facilities, placing them instead in family foster homes.” Additionally, the report found a “greater percentage of children visited with their siblings in foster care.”

But the report finds that DSS continues to face major challenges in the remaining areas, including:

  • Inadequate and insufficient housing: Due to an ongoing “lack of accessible and nurturing placement resources throughout the state,” many children are uprooted from their communities and placed far from family members and schools. In addition, the delay in completing a required Placement Needs Implementation Plan, which is now two years past the original FSA deadline, has “left the severe inadequacies in DSS’s placement capacity and processes largely unaddressed.” As a result, too many children remain placed in inadequate or inappropriate settings, such as congregate (group) care facilities or in some cases juvenile justice detention.
  • Overburdened caseworkers: The report found that DSS caseworkers have “persistently high caseloads, well above acceptable standards.” Overburdened caseworkers lack the time, training, and resources to properly care for children and “ensure their safety, well-being and permanency,” making it difficult or even impossible for DSS to follow through on improving the quality of practice. Additionally, overburdened caseworkers are often unable to facilitate children’s family visitation, and the report finds that “for the vast majority of children, entry into foster care means that they have limited or no contact with their parents, even when the goal is for them to return home.”
  • Access to healthcare: While some initial planning to improve the healthcare delivery system for children in foster care was noted in the report, the monitors found that DSS must “find a way to comply with the FSA provision for identifying children in need of medical care, originally intended as a short-term emergency measure to be completed immediately after the entry of the FSA.” Immediate corrective actions in the FSA required identifying all children with overdue health checks and overdue treatment and getting them scheduled rapidly. The monitors urge DSS to partner with the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and its Managed Care Organization, Select Health.
  • Poor data collection: The report also notes problems with data collection and reporting. While there have been some efforts by a small staff, “issues with the quality of documentation and the integrity of CAPSS data remain pervasive.” DSS is unable to reliably track information relating to health care, permanency goals, or abuse history for the children in its care.

“We stand ready to work with DSS to correct these big problems, but this is a critical moment for DSS,” said Sue Berkowitz, executive director of South Carolina Appleseed. “These kids must get the care and protection they need.”

# # # 

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