York County DSS caseworker suspended for not making criminal background checks

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMarch 16, 2013 

  • Unanswered questions The Herald asked DSS officials last week these questions, but had not received an answer by Saturday night: • Does DSS still have a case pending against the father stemming from the May abuse allegation? What about the uncle? If so, does DSS expect a resolution soon? • What disciplinary actions are possible once an employee commits an infraction? Is three days' suspension a standard discipline for caseworkers who fail to check criminal backgrounds and make home visits and fail to properly install safety plans? • Are caseworkers expected to self-report when an error is made? • Does DSS have an investigations division or some equivalent that looks into mistakes and how cases were handled? • Why wasn't the case looked into and the employee suspended in July when police records show the allegation of abuse against the uncle was made? • How long has the caseworker worked with DSS? Does she and all caseworkers generally receive child protective services training before they start taking clients?

The social services caseworker who agreed to place a Rock Hill boy with his convicted-felon uncle after removing him from his allegedly abusive father’s home was suspended for three days without pay in January, according to documents obtained recently by The Herald.

The fallout from the mishandled case also prompted a February memo from the director of the state Department of Social Services, reminding DSS employees statewide of their obligation to perform appropriate background checks before placing children in temporary custody.

The caseworker was suspended Jan. 15-17 because she violated agency policies and was negligent in performing her duties, endangering the well-being of the now-8-year-old boy, according to a letter from the state Department of Social Services obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.

“This type of behavior by an agency employee is absolutely unacceptable, brings discredit upon DSS, and exposed to great harm a child who this agency was obligated to protect,” the letter reads. “Your conduct must improve immediately. A failure to do so may result in further disciplinary action in accordance with agency policy.”

The caseworker declined to comment for this story.

Last May, when the boy was 7, the York County DSS office removed him from his parents’ home after allegations that his father, now 30, beat him with a leather belt and wooden paddle, leaving him with bruises and cuts on his back from splinters on the paddle.

DSS officials didn’t take custody of the boy or formally place him with his uncle, agency officials said, but agreed on a safety plan with the boy’s parents, who decided their son should temporarily stay with his uncle.

The Herald is not naming any family members involved in the case to protect the boy’s identity.

After removing the boy from his parents’ home, the caseworker failed to run state and federal criminal background checks on the uncle before agreeing to let the boy stay with him , DSS documents show.

According to police records, the boy alleged last summer that his uncle put on a scary mask and hit him repeatedly in the head, leaving him with a bruised eye. Police in October charged the uncle, now 37, with unlawful conduct toward a child and possession of marijuana.

The boy was then placed in the care of his grandmother. He has since been returned to his parents’ home.

The uncle was sentenced in 1995 to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to assault and battery with intent to kill, court records show. He threw a concrete brick at a 21-year-old Rock Hill man, hitting him in the head and causing serious brain damage and two strokes. The uncle was released from prison in 2006.

DSS officials did not respond to questions submitted by The Herald after the newspaper received the new state documents from the agency.

DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus told The Herald in January that DSS played only an intervention role in the case, allowing the family to recommend relatives who can take care of their children when they’re taken from a home.

The process is called kinship placement and, in the Rock Hill boy’s case, “the child never left his family,” Matheus said.

Before those relatives take custody of the child, DSS is supposed to conduct federal, state and local criminal background checks and see if they’re listed on a sex offender registry, Kathleen McLean-Titus, DSS’ human services coordinator, said in January.

In all situations , caseworkers should refer to a potential custodian’s federal, state and local criminal background, Matheus said then.

Procedures outlined in DSS’ human services policy manual require caseworkers to assure that children removed from a home are safely placed as quickly as possible.

“For those children who cannot be safely reunified with their families, timely efforts must be made to ensure a stable, secure, and permanent home for the child through adoption or other permanent living arrangements,” the policy states.

On Feb. 22, DSS director Lillian Koller sent human services supervisors, staff, leaders and workers a memo addressing workers’ use of “various methods for obtaining criminal history background checks.”

“State law allows DSS to request and receive, at no charge, extensive state and local criminal history from any local law enforcement agency when checking adults in a home where a child is named” in a child protective services report and where a child might be placed, Koller wrote.

“You must work with local law enforcement to obtain these searches, (sic). The results are more reliable than having your staff search the Public Index Case Records.”

When The Herald asked DSS officials if the caseworker checked the uncle’s criminal history, they initially said she looked on the public index, which catalogues court records made available through the state Judicial Department, but couldn’t find the uncle’s 1995 charges or convictions.

DSS officials also told The Herald in January that the caseworker performed “preliminary checks” on the boy’s uncle, which looked at his criminal history with the Rock Hill Police Department and the York County Sheriff’s Office.

The York County Sheriff’s Office does not perform criminal background checks for DSS. Instead, those documents are made available by the York County Clerk of Court’s office.

Rock Hill police told The Herald a DSS official asked for two years’ worth of incident reports, but did not request a criminal background check on the uncle.

DSS officials said the caseworker, whose name they would not initially disclose, failed to do the proper background checks.

While initially inquiring about the case last year, The Herald checked the uncle’s criminal background with the State Law Enforcement Division and the public index, both of which showed the uncle’s assault and battery charge and subsequent conviction.

Initially, DSS would not detail what disciplinary actions were taken against the caseworker, only saying that it’s “more than likely” such action was taken and that it was a personnel matter.

But information made public after the Freedom of Information Act request confirmed the caseworker was suspended in January, nearly a year after the boy was first taken out of his father’s home.

The caseworker’s suspension started two days after The Herald published the third in a series of stories that pressed officials for details on the case.

According to the suspension letter, signed by York County’s DSS director Yvonne Stewart, the caseworker failed to:

• “Make, or document, home visits” in the case

• Conduct a family meeting within 24 hours of the boy’s removal from the home to discuss agency safety expectations for all children in the household

• Develop an appropriate safety plan for the remaining children in the home.

DSS policies mandate that within 24 hours after a child is removed from the home, the caseworker must hold a family meeting to include the parent, guardian, extended family and other relevant people to discuss the family’s problem that led to the intervention.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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