South Carolina

McLawhorn: DSS not to blame for child deaths

As president and CEO of the Columbia Urban League, I have devoted a major portion of my professional career to youth leadership development with outcome-driven initiatives. These initiatives have mobilized other community leaders to provide resources, mentoring, internships and educational and economic opportunities for youth, setting them on a path of achievement through self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

The state Department of Social Services has been a longtime partner in these initiatives, which has allowed me to witness firsthand the helpful work officials there do with children and families. We work with DSS youth in foster care, providing life skills, support and encouragement.

DSS is the first, and sometimes last, responder when a family is in crisis. DSS intervenes when there is sufficient evidence that parents and family members fail to adequately care for their children. Like law enforcement, it’s who you call when there’s trouble, fear, desperation and hysteria surrounding our children in need.

But unlike law enforcement, DSS often is blamed when parents harm or kill their children. DSS no more creates the criminal abuse it responds to than law enforcement does. The criminal abuse comes at the hands of parents and other family members, oftentimes as a result of parents’ lack of adequate parenting skills, chronic unemployment and financial crises, alcohol and substance abuse

It is unfair to condemn an agency mandated to investigate and review one of the worst events in our society: the death of a child.

When such deaths occur, there must be transparency and accountability; the public’s trust must never be taken lightly. But the fact is that our children’s well-being, individually and collectively, is everyone’s responsibility. All of us play a crucial role in keeping our children safe — not just child advocates, DSS, politicians, medical or education professionals, but also the grocery store clerk, the church volunteer, the neighbor next door and the casual bystander at a community event.

I encourage DSS and its stakeholders to mount a campaign much like law enforcement’s “CrimeStoppers” initiative: Provide an 800 number for anyone to call and report suspected child abuse or neglect.

There is always someone who knows when a child is in trouble; we should never look the other way. We all must take responsibility in our community and provide the safety net our children need.

James T. McLawhorn Jr.

President & CEO, Columbia Urban League