Gov. Nikki Haley said she knew there had been problems at the Richland County Department of Social Services last year but when a 5-month-old boy died last month who had been sought for weeks by caseworkers, Haley said she had to act.
“That’s when I thought, all right, something’s got to give,” Haley told The Greenville News. “That’s when I went into the DSS offices and said, ‘Let’s look at this again.’”
Haley on Tuesday announced a number of changes at DSS, mostly at the Richland County offices.
Richland County DSS trails most of the state, officials say, in the metrics used to evaluate how well DSS handles cases of child abuse and neglect. It’s also where 5-month-old Bryson Webb died as well as a 4-year-old boy last year who was returned to his home by a family court judge and died of a beating.
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The handling of child abuse and neglect cases by DSS has been the focus of a special Senate panel this year that has been taking testimony for months about child deaths and whether the agency is doing everything it can to prevent them.
Critics, including some running against Haley for governor, have argued the deaths point to systemic problems at DSS and called for DSS Director Lillian Koller’s ouster.
On Tuesday, Haley, who appointed Koller in 2011, once again affirmed her support, arguing that if she could save the life of even one child by seeking her resignation, she would do so.
Haley said a 20-member “intensive caseworker” team has been assigned to Richland County to help immediately address surging caseloads while a group of new caseworkers is being trained. A second operating shift has been created for caseworkers, and additional supervisors will be hired to watch caseload ratios and to watch caseworkers.
She said new liaisons will be assigned to the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, the Richland County Coroner’s Office and a guardian ad litem program, as well as at the State Law Enforcement Division, where the workers will trigger help from law enforcement when needed and also relay law enforcement information to caseworkers.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat running for governor, called Haley’s changes “like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“They don’t address the fundamental problem that’s keeping children in danger,” he said. “We can’t trust that these local changes will be implemented under a DSS head with a record of mismanagement and Haley’s refusal to demand accountability.”
But Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican and chairman of the Senate panel, lauded Haley’s announcement.
“The testimony we received has indicated there are real problems at the Richland County DSS office,” he said. “And I think this is definitely a step in the right direction in dealing with that office.”
Haley said she noticed problems at Richland County when the 4-year-old boy, Robert Guinyard, died despite DSS’ attempts to keep him from returning to the home.
Koller has testified that mistakes were made in the case involving the intake process for tips and complaints, and eight people at the agency involved in the case no longer work there.