Eight of the deaths happened in Anderson County and 22 occurred in Horry County, Perry Simpson, director of the South Carolina Legislative Audit Council, told a panel of lawmakers Friday. Other unreported deaths were in 32 South Carolina counties.
None of the unreported deaths from Anderson County involved criminal wrongdoing, Deputy Coroner Don McCown said Friday. Two of the deaths involved children from Georgia who were brought to AnMed Health Medical Center in Anderson, he said. The other six deaths were related to fatal traffic accidents or suicides, McCown said.
Under state law, county coroners are required to report violent, unexpected or unexplained deaths involving children who are 17 or younger to the South Carolina Division of Law Enforcement.
A legislative audit council report issued Friday said, “We identified 152 child fatalities that occurred between 2009 and 2013 for which the State Law Enforcement Division did not have a report from a county coroner, but which appeared to meet the criteria set forth in law that would require the fatalities to be reported.
“In 104 cases, it appears the child deaths were not reported by the coroners as required by state law, while in 48 cases, there is evidence to indicate that the fatalities were reported by the coroners. SLED, however, did not have these fatalities in its database.”
The report said no autopsies were conducted in 25 of the unreported cases of child deaths.
“While not all violent, unexpected or unexplained deaths are the result of maltreatment, it is important that they be properly reviewed to ensure that the child was not a victim of abuse or neglect,” the audit report says.
The state law enforcement division is looking into the unreported deaths, Chief Mark Keel said Wednesday in a letter responding to the audit.
“SLED’s Department of Child Fatalities has begun reviewing and will review each of the 152 child fatalities noted in this report,” Keel wrote. “As of the date of this letter, the Department has opened 115 of these cases.”
Keel said he is working with coroners across the state to clear up any confusion about reporting requirements.
McCown said officials at the law enforcement division have changed their reporting policies. He said he has submitted details about the eight unreported deaths to the law enforcement division.
McCown insisted that every death involving a child in Anderson County is investigated fully.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that no unexplained child death was not reported to SLED,” he said.
The information about the unreported deaths of children is contained in a long-awaited audit of the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
In March, agency officials told a state Senate oversight committee that the number of child fatalities with prior involvement by the department had dropped significantly since 2010.
But the audit report says that claim cannot be verified.
“We found that child fatality data reported to the General Assembly and the public regarding child maltreatment deaths, particularly those with prior DSS involvement, is not reliable and should not be used as a measure of agency performance,” the report says. “Changes to the system of reviewing child fatalities could result in improved analysis of deaths and help reduce the number of preventable deaths.”
The audit, which took two years to complete, highlights a number of serious problems at the social services agency.
One focus of the audit report involves the caseloads of child-welfare workers.
“DSS caseloads are often excessive, reducing the ability of caseworkers to investigate and prevent child abuse and neglect,” the report says.
The audit found that more than half of the agency’s 611 caseworkers had caseloads that exceed standards established in June.
In Anderson County, 60 percent of the department’s 31 caseworkers had caseloads that exceeded the agency’s newly set standards. More than a third of the caseworkers had caseloads that exceeded the new standards by 50 percent of more, according to the audit report.
The audit report also raised concerns about a community-based prevention services program that the agency established in 2011-12. After the program’s creation, “there was a significant decrease in the probability that child abuse and neglect reports would be investigated by DSS.”
“The decision of DSS to use private contractors for case management in this program reduces face-to-face contact by the department with potential victims of abuse and neglect and may increase the risk that abuse and neglect will go undetected,” the audit report says.
The audit report says that in many cases, the agency is not seeing abused and neglected children in a timely manner.
“In 2013, nearly one in four children (24%) whose abuse or neglect reports were accepted for investigation were not seen by a caseworker within 24 hours, as required by DSS policy,” the report says.
The report says that the agency has “not ensured that its workforce is well-qualified and compensated competitively when compared with similar positions in South Carolina and other states.”
A high rate of employee turnover is another issue highlighted in the audit report.
According to the report, 65.5 percent of the agency’s child welfare caseworkers left the department between 2011 and 2013. Twenty-seven of the agency’s 46 county directors left their positions between 2011 and August 2104.
The agency’s acting director, Amber Gillum, told the Senate oversight committee Friday that county caseworkers and their supervisors will receive a 10 percent pay raise. Gillum took over after former director Lillian Koller resigned in June.
Gillum also said the agency has hired 139 child-welfare employees since June and 69 more workers are in the process of being hired.
Ted Pitts, chief of staff for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, told the oversight committee that Haley intends to recommend funding for Gillum’s plan to hire more than another 200 employees at the agency next year.
“The most important issue facing the state is to get caseloads down,” Pitts said.
The audit report will likely become an issue in the South Carolina governor’s race. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic candidate for governor, and independent candidate Tom Ervin have harshly criticized Haley for problems at the social services agency.
Both men issued statements reacting to the audit.
Sheheen said that instead of addressing problems at the agency, “Haley and her administration have been lying about the numbers to cover their backs.”
Ervin said “the gross negligence of Gov. Haley’s DSS poses a real threat to the safety of the children they are charged with protecting.”
Haley’s office issued a statement about the audit Friday evening.
“The fact is, DSS has been hard at work for over a year making improvements and that work has produced solid results,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said. “Governor Haley fully supports the agency’s ongoing efforts to deliver the best possible services to the at-risk children of our state.”
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