Not all SC children are well; public must demand DSS change

newsroom@islandpacket.comMay 9, 2014 

"And how are the children?"

This traditional greeting used by members of an African tribe illustrates the high value they put on the well-being of their children.

And the anticipated answer? "All the children are well."

Anything different suggests that not only are the children at risk but there is something terribly amiss in the overall community.

Given the controversy swirling around the Department of Social Services in regard to high-profile child deaths, overworked employees and other issues, the taxpayers and citizens of South Carolina should be asking every day: "And how are the children?"

While legislators and other state officials, including Gov. Nikki Haley, are embroiled in the debate over the state of DSS, this is a discussion that must be monitored and engaged by everyone.

When a baby under the state's watch is brutally beaten to death or dies of shameful neglect, we're all responsible.

As it stands, not all of South Carolina's tiniest citizens are well, which is why a Senate panel -- responding to a series of deaths of children who had involvement with DSS -- has been compelled to hold hearings on the agency. Some Democratic and Republican senators have been so moved that they demanded that Director Lillian Koller be fired.

Sens. Joel Lourie and Katrina Shealy, who have been bombarded with emails and phone calls from families and even DSS workers with horror story after horror story, have taken the lead on demanding action.

DSS claims fewer children are dying after some involvement with the agency since Koller arrived in 2011, and Haley lauds the job her appointee is doing. But critics and child advocates suggest that the numbers are misleading, that things are worse than ever at the agency and that child deaths are flat, at best. Critics say that Koller's focus has been too much on getting numbers down and not enough on protecting the lives of children.

Whatever the numbers, we can't ignore the sad details of child deaths and some of the coinciding actions by DSS.

Just consider the most recent death of a 5-month-old under DSS care who had a heart condition that required around-the-clock monitoring but didn't get it. A medical professional concerned for the child's safety notified officials on March 3; by the time social workers made contact with the family on April 25, the child had been dead for three days.

There are those who say it's not DSS' job alone to care for our kids, and they're right. While some might be sick of hearing that we all share part of the blame when senseless tragedies strike our children, it's true. As an African proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child."

The village around our children must play a role in keeping them alive and well: Villagers can serve as safety nets for children and take action if they know something is wrong.

While the parents are responsible first and foremost and are duty-bound to love, nurture and protect their children, communities collectively must care for our youngest citizens. If not for people outside of the home and family intervening, most child abuse cases probably would never be reported.

Teachers and principals and friends and neighbors and preachers and church members must speak out. Family members and friends and coworkers can't stay mum.

DSS workers would be the first to tell you that if you have a good suspicion abuse is occurring, you need to contact the agency; it's incumbent upon DSS to check it out.

Just as we should intervene when one child is abused, we should intervene when the entire system is failing children.

Frankly, given the competing characterizations of the state of DSS, I don't know whether things are better or worse than when Koller took over the agency.

But I can tell you that DSS hasn't done a good enough job, and we must do better.

The high-profile deaths, the stories about workers' caseloads being too heavy and other reports steadily rolling in are all signs that something's not right with the safety net we've built for our children.

It's our collective duty to raise questions and expect DSS, lawmakers and the governor to have answers. And if the ultimate answer isn't, "All the children are well," then we've got work to do, and changes to make.

To leave DSS in the condition it is in, when we know children are dying and resources are too few, would be grossly negligent.

And it would be the fault of all of us.

Warren Bolton is associate editor at The State in Columbia. He may be reached at wbolton@thestate.com.

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