The audit suggests that reporting failures could originate in county coroner’s offices. Between 2009 and 2013, coroners didn’t report 104 abuse and neglect fatalities to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division as required in state law. In 48 more, coroners said deaths were reported but the agency has no record in its database.
“The number of child fatalities which met the criteria for reporting to SLED that were not correctly reported is shocking,” said Dr. Susan Luberoff, a Columbia pediatrician who also is chairwoman of the State Child Fatality Advisory Committee.
In the past, the Department of Social Services has reported that child deaths in which caseworkers have had previous contact with a family have declined since 2009. Auditors with the state’s Legislative Audit Council said that may not be true.
“It is not possible from this analysis to conclude that deaths with DSS involvement have declined,” the audit said.
Officials in three state departments say they are taking steps to make sure that no more suspicious deaths fall between the cracks:
• Social services officials say they ‘ll now prepare written reports when an investigation suggests child abuse or neglect was involved in a fatality.
• Mark Keel, Law Enforcement Division chief, said county coroners now will receive e-mail to acknowledge his department’s receipt of a coroner’s report.
• And officials at South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control said they are working with the law enforcement division to provide statistics for death certificates that note suspicious deaths and death-certificate information they receive from coroners.
The audit also found that the Department of Social Services does not have an adequate system for screening, investigation, treatment and placement of children in safe homes when abuse and neglect are reported.
Almost 20% of caseworkers were responsible for more than 50 children; 11% had more than 60 children, and 3% had more than 75 children, the audit showed. More than half exceeded the standards recommended by the Child Welfare League of America, which recommends no more than 12 cases involving investigations, 17 cases of family preservation or 12 to 15 foster cases.
Social-services caseworkers also aren’t required to have degrees in social work or behavioral science or other relevant work experience and aren’t paid a salary competitive with other employers. Auditors’ calculations show that two-thirds of the caseworkers left their jobs between 2011 and 2013.
Their starting salaries in 2014: $30,582, less than the average minimum salary of comparable workers in 42 states, according to the audit.
Last month, the department said it would ask state lawmakers for money to hire 202 more people, including more than 100 caseworkers. If approved, the budget increase would take effect in July 2015.
On Thursday, the agency said it would hire 50 caseworkers and eight supervisors next month as well as 67 caseworker assistants — 125 new employees. Existing child welfare workers are getting 10% raises, part of an effort to slow the stream of departing caseworkers.
The raises will cost $2.1 million while the entire hiring package will total $6.4 million, a cost that will be paid for with federal money and a delay in putting up some Medicaid match money, Amber Gillum, acting director of the state Department of Social Services, told The Greenville News.
More than 100 of the new employees to be hired are part of the 202 the agency told lawmakers that they want paid for in next year’s budget.