COLUMBIA — In 2013 there were 58 deaths of children either while in the custody of or under the care of the state’s Department of Social Services but the answers to how this could happen are few and far between.
While being taken to task through subcommittee hearings within the state Legislature, DSS has been struggling to appear more transparent in its dealings with the public and addressing concerns for children’s welfare statewide.
“Ultimately the goal is reunification, at least that’s the catch word the department is using,” Lexington Sen. Katrina Shealy said. “Reunification is their wildly important goal, to keep families together, which in some cases makes sense. But there are times when reunification isn’t the answer because if it’s not a good family, the child isn’t going to be better off. That’s happening far too often and in my opinion, is part of the reason we’re having to even talk about how many children have died last year.”
Shealy, one of the members of the subcommittee holding oversight hearings concerning the issues DSS is facing, says the number 58 is probably low.
“If I didn’t know anything about South Carolina and was moving here, somewhere like Jasper County would be Utopia,” Shealy said. “There are several counties, including Jasper, who haven’t had a single child to die in the last five years if you look at the statistics. So if I was from out of state, I’d have to think what a great place, nothing ever happens there, no child ever dies there and it must be a great place to live.”
State law requires that whenever a child dies in South Carolina, state authorities must be notified and an autopsy performed by a certified pathologist. Once an autopsy is performed, if the cause of death is determined to have been unavoidable, such as an auto accident without special circumstances, or pathological, disease or developmental, the case ends there.
Should the pathologist determine some other cause, the State Law Enforcement Division’s Special Victims Unit is engaged and an investigation begins.
The problem is, according to Shealy and SLED, no one is sure who is responsible for enforcing the statute.
“All coroners are required to report a child’s death,” Shealy said. “I think it’s obvious this isn’t what’s being done here. There’s just no way the law is being followed by the coroners in some of these counties.”
Capt. Michael Green, recently appointed head of SLED’s SVU (Special Victims Unit), appeared before the subcommittee to answer questions.
“To be honest, I have no idea who it is that’s supposed to be overseeing the coroners and their reports of children’s deaths to the state,” Green said when asked who was responsible for oversight. “But, I do know we need to figure out how to enforce this process.”
Pickens County itself is statistically challenged with the socioeconomic factors contributing to the number of children in foster care and the high caseload at the local level.
In 2012 21 percent of the county’s children were being raised in poverty while the percentage of children raised in single parent homes more than doubled between 1980 and 2010, according to statistics obtained from the state.
Jessica Hanak-Coulter, assistant director for DSS in South Carolina, addressed this issue briefly in the most recent hearing held in Columbia, though each time asked for specifics had to demure until the specific facts and figures could be collected for the subcommittee.
“There are far too many of our children in the state growing without proper nutrition and care,” she explained. “In many of these cases these families end up dealing with our organization.”
In the end, how does a state protect its children while trying to facilitate a proper placement?
“I wish I knew where the problem is coming from,” Shealy said. “Right now I don’t think anyone knows what the problem is, but what I do know is that when these kids are in the care of the state there should never be a time one is injured, or God forbid dies, because someone didn’t do their job. There has to be more time spent vetting foster parents, visiting these families, and overseeing foster care. We have to make some changes.”
While the subcommittee plans to continue its hearings, there might not be any clear answers forthcoming and what, if any, repercussions there will be for the department itself.
“In a situation like this, someone has to be held accountable and have to answer for allowing it to happen,” Capt. Green said. “That’s what my job is going to be, and it’s going to be a priority, is to find out why we are falling down in the reporting and criminal process with someone having to answer for their actions.”