At a defining moment early in my adulthood, I made the decision to pursue a career in social work. Since then, I have focused on the experiences of children and the many barriers to their success.
After completing my graduate degree in social work, I set out to honor my calling as a field organizer with South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. At first, I had only a basic understanding of the issues plaguing the Department of Social Services (DSS). But in just a short time, I have come to understand how systemic deficiencies are harming kids in foster care.
I have witnessed firsthand the residual effects that widespread problems – such as excessive caseloads, the failure to provide kids with basic health care and the shortage of foster homes – have on children and families. No amount of classroom time could have prepared me for what I have seen.
One foster family I came in contact with was caring for a child suffering from extreme emotional and psychological disturbances. After the child admitted to being sexually abused before entering care, the child’s foster mother repeatedly implored DSS’s assistance in scheduling a psychological evaluation and therapy. But her requests went unanswered. Exasperated, she had no other option than to pay for parenting classes out of her own pocket. Without them, she would continue to be ill-equipped to meet the needs of the struggling child. This foster mother’s courage was commendable, and made it even harder to accept that she and the child suffered because they were refused services owed to them by state law.
Another family I encountered was caring for a child who had been through two lengthy hospitalizations due to the lack of medical oversight provided by his caseworker. Prior to entering the family’s home, the child received no medical, physical or psychological assessments when he went into foster care. This violation of DSS mandates and state laws proved nearly fatal. At the hospital, the family learned that the child was suffering from severe asthma. The family had received no information or medication from DSS to properly maintain the child’s quality of life. When questioned, the assigned social worker had very little feedback; simply admitting that she had not been aware of the child’s existing condition or its severity. Outraged by the lack of accountability and responsiveness, the family reported the caseworker to her supervisor, only to receive little refuge or affirmation. While the child has significantly improved due to the diligence of his foster parents, it was scary to think how fatal the situation could have been as a result of distracted case management and negligent supervision.
With stories like these it can be hard to sleep at night.
While it is easy to direct all the anger and frustration to the individuals of DSS, it is apparent that the true culprits are the service gaps created by the administration of the agency. Service gaps so widespread and so injurious that some children go months without seeing their caseworkers; causing further suffering and deterioration of their psychological and social development. In addition, high caseloads result in inattention to children’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. And the failure to attend to children’s basic health needs often ends in unjustified incarceration, inadequate placements and even repeated emotional disturbances that have the potential to destroy their chances for healthy development.
Children have died after having contact with DSS, and these failures can no longer be accepted. Comprehensive reform is necessary at DSS. I know impacting change will be an uphill battle, but it is my hope that the legal action taken this month by Children’s Rights, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, and Matthew T. Richardson of local law firm Wyche P.A., will force DSS to put children first in South Carolina.
All of our children deserve a chance. We are standing up, waving the flag, and taking an active stand to eliminate the status quo.