Scoppe: Assume Koller has done everything right. There’s still a big problem at DSS

Associate EditorApril 30, 2014 

— LET’S GIVE every benefit of the doubt to Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller. Let’s take as a given that even if she did her job perfectly, even if all of her employees did their jobs perfectly, there still would be children who have been referred to DSS who would be abused and neglected, some horribly so. There still would be children who have been referred to DSS who would die unbearably awful deaths.

Let’s assume that all the employees who are coming forward publicly and privately with complaints — that Ms. Koller is fixated on getting children adopted, whether the combination of child and adults is right or wrong, that she is so focused on making her numbers look good that her employees feel pressured to disregard serious abuse — are simply disgruntled employees who don’t like the fact that she is not willing to accept an unacceptable status quo.

Let’s assume that Sens. Katrina Shealy and Joel Lourie have become magnets for everybody out there with a complaint against DSS. And let’s understand that everybody who has ever come into contact with this sort of agency has a complaint about it. Everyone who has reported what they suspect is child abuse is convinced that the agency didn’t respond quickly enough or take their complaint seriously enough — particularly if the complainer is an ex-spouse, or a grandparent who has had a falling out with the grandchild’s parents. Every parent who has abused or neglected his children and had them taken away will insist until his dying day that he never did anything wrong. That DSS did him wrong. And every one of those people is calling Sens. Shealy and Lourie.

Let’s assume that Ms. Shealy as a new senator has no basis for comparison when she says she is overwhelmed by the number of complaints. Let’s assume that what she reports as a tsunami of problems is no different than what always has been there.

For that matter, let’s even assume, as the governor’s inner circle presents as an undebatable given, that Sen. Lourie is shilling for his best friend, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is seeking to unseat Ms. Koller’s boss, Gov. Nikki Haley.

Let’s also recognize that the number of children who die each year under DSS supervision is, thankfully, far, far, far too small to demonstrate any trends. Let’s remember that whether Ms. Koller’s numbers are an accurate measure and the number of deaths has declined dramatically or Sens. Shealy and Lourie are correct when they point to numbers that suggest the deaths have remained roughly flat or even gone up a bit, there has not been a huge spike. They haven’t tripled, or even doubled.

Assume and understand and recognize and remember all that, and here’s what I can’t get past: Laura Hudson, probably the most respected crime victims’ advocate in the state of South Carolina, a woman who has a well-earned reputation to protect, a woman not given to hyperbole, a woman who does not have unreasonable expectations about the government, a woman who is not new to this, a woman who is not Vincent Sheheen’s best friend. Laura Hudson says Ms. Koller’s numbers don’t add up.

Here’s what I can’t get past: Paige Greene, executive director of Richland County’s guardian ad litem program, CASA, which advocates for the interest of child victims in court, who has been doing this job for 12 years, who worked as a front-line caseworker at DSS for 20 years before that, who has contact on a daily basis with the DSS caseworkers who are assigned to protect children. Paige Greene says she has never seen a situation like this. Paige Greene’s voice trembles when she talks about the latest child who died. It is filled with more emotions than I can describe when she tells me, “I have never seen this many skull fractures, this many broken bones, this many child deaths in Richland County.”

Here’s what I can’t get past: the stories. The horrible, awful story after horrible, awful story.

The one about the medically fragile infant whose mother was sent home with specific instructions for keeping the infant alive, but who so ignored those instructions that in March the medical outreach nurse called DSS warning that the infant would die if he was not placed on a heart monitor, as instructed. And DSS couldn’t find the family. For 45 days, DSS couldn’t or didn’t find the family. Until three days after the infant died.

And the siblings who were snatched from a foster home two days before Christmas and placed in separate homes, robbing them not only of the family who had cared for them for six months but of each other. Taken away not because the foster parents had violated any rules or endangered them but because, by Sen. Shealy’s telling, one of them had annoyed the caseworker and the caseworker wanted to punish him. As soon as the courts opened back up the day after Christmas, she managed to help get the children back to their foster parents, but only after the emotional trauma was inflicted.

The story about the child who curled up in a ball in his foster mother’s lap and begged her not to let them take him back to his abusive father; who told the van driver and everyone else he came in contact with that he was going to burn down the house if they sent him back. The father who didn’t want him back because he was afraid of both his son and what he would do to his son. The case workers who refused to listen — until the child was back home, and he stabbed his father to death.

The child who was sexually abused at home but returned on the condition that the abuser be kept away. The child who suffered more abuse even after school officials notified DSS that the abuser was again living in her home. Until the day the child showed up with a baggie filled with graphic evidence of the sexual abuse and told school officials, “I hope they believe me this time.”

The siblings who were separated for Christmas to punish their foster father and the boy who stabbed his father and the child who was sexually abused don’t show up in the death reports, but part of them has died. Because DSS ignored warnings and put them in harm’s way.

Maybe the warnings were ignored because caseworkers were overwhelmed, as Ms. Greene says, with caseloads that have climbed from 12-15 families to 70. And more. But for whatever reason, they were ignored.

Gov. Haley says things are improving at DSS. She says she’s proud of the job Ms. Koller is doing.

If this is what happens when the director does a praise-worthy job, I don’t want to live in a state where she’s doing a lousy job. If this is the best that DSS can do, well, it’s just not good enough.

If there’s even a grain of truth to these stories, and to dozens and scores more like them — and it is simply not conceivable that they could all be fabricated — then Gov. Haley and Ms. Koller shouldn’t be defending the agency. They should be joining Sens. Shealy and Lourie in demanding solutions. And they should be creating those solutions.

COMING FRIDAY: Why two of the assumptions I’ve asked you to make are too generous.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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