COLUMBIA — Some of South Carolina's most vulnerable citizens — abused children — could wind up being ignored and returned to neglectful homes.
That's because nearly all state money has been cut for a $1.3 million specialized medical program that helps identify victims and deals with their abusers.
The need for child abuse medical expertise is so crucial that six years ago, four of S.C.'s children's hospitals got a $1.1 million grant from Duke Endowment to set up a network of experts trained to evaluate such cases.
But the state Department of Health and Human Services, which took over funding in 2007, axed most of the money in December, after it was forced to make nearly $137 million in state-mandated cuts, roughly 15 percent of its total budget.
Child abuse is ranked second, behind asthma, as the most chronic childhood condition in South Carolina, said Maggie Michael, executive director of a non-profit collaborative of the major state children's hospitals.
"This is a tremendous loss," Michael said. "In child abuse cases, you don't always get a second chance, and a quick professional diagnosis is crucial."
Dr. Olga Rosa, a Florida expert brought to South Carolina when the program was launched, runs the child abuse medical network, called the S.C. Children's Advocacy Medical Response System.
About 21,000 suspected cases are reported to state and law enforcement authorities each year.
In 2003, before the program existed, only 1,938 children were medically evaluated for abuse by the state's then-patchwork medical program.
Last year, the network examined 4,315 children.
The long-term future of the program is uncertain at this point, and in large part, might depend on whether it can regain some state funding.