Senator involved in DSS oversight sees kids lost in shuffle

By D. C. Moody

January 29, 2014

COUMBIA — Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington County wasn’t looking to become yet another layer of oversight when it comes to the Department of Social Services. She was thinking of the welfare of the children of South Carolina.

“When I got involved in this mess, my main focus was child welfare. I was looking into the large number of children’s deaths, and the accuracy of those numbers,” Shealy explained when asked how she became involved. “There are way too many bureaucratic offices already overseeing DSS, what I want to get to the bottom of and understand is how kids are getting lost in the shuffle.”

To say the least, the entire organizational chart of DSS, including their responsibilities, lends itself to issues within its operations and responsibilities.

“This is a complex organization, a complex department with a wide range of responsibilities,” Shealy said. “They have to cover everything from child support to welfare to foster care, just to name a few, and understanding how all of these departments and review boards are supposed to work hand in hand together is a nightmare. The fact is, they don’t work well together and that’s why we’re having these hearings.”

The hearings Shealy referred to are subcommittee hearings being held in the state Legislature concerning the track record of the Department of Social Services over the last several years, especially the high number of deaths that have been reported on the department’s watch.

For the senator, the number of horror stories involving case workers, supervisors, investigators and directors surprised even her.

“I had to revamp my website after I became involved in these hearings and conducting an investigation,” the senator said. “I get more emails now than I ever got when I was running for office because there are so many people writing me, asking for help they never could get before. I knew there was more to this.”

The most recent hearings were held in anticipation of DSS officials answering a list of 43 questions the subcommittee had posed. For Shealy, some of the most important answers, which were never directly addressed due to time constraints, have to do with oversight and safety.

“There are a lot of questions still left unanswered, like who is regulating foster care and foster homes?” Shealy asked. “That’s just one of the questions I have and know there’s a serious problem there. I know Pickens County is one of our counties with a serious problem.”

The appearance of a lack of oversight — due to heavy caseloads for case workers, in some instances over 100 per case worker per county — is only made more difficult when third party vendors are figured into the mix.

“Right now it’s hard to say for sure how much outsourcing is going on,” the senator said. “That adds an entirely new layer of oversight and bureaucracy. Where we have had an issue with some foster care when DSS has handled the case, now there are outside contractors involved and no one knows who is watching who.”

For a problem as intricate and detailed as the issues facing the state, parents and DSS, there has to be a solution.

“Transparency, that’s where this has to begin. Without knowing the depth of the problem, it isn’t going to be easy to fix,” Shealy said. “As a Legislature, as residents and parents, we need transparency across the board and right now, I just don’t see us getting it. There are far too many questions without answers at this point.”