Fourteen years later, after 28 foster care placements around the state, some where he suffered physical abuse and neglect, the 17-year-old sits in the Pickens County Detention Center because the state, according to child advocates, does not have a foster care placement for him.
On Monday, the teenager’s case was spotlighted in a federal, class-action lawsuit filed against the state by child advocates seeking changes to the state’s foster care system.
After growing up in DSS custody, the teen “remains in jail awaiting a foster care placement and at risk of aging out of DSS foster care without any meaningful adult connections in his life, without any support services and without a permanent safe home,” the suit states.
According to the 74-page complaint, maltreatment in foster care goes uninvestigated by DSS, inaccurate data masks a much higher rate of abuse and neglect in care than the state reports to the federal government, and caseworkers are so overburdened that children suffer unnecessary harms.
“As a direct result of longstanding, well-documented failures by DSS, plaintiff children have been and continue to be harmed physically, psychologically and emotionally and continue to be placed at ongoing risk of such harms while in DSS custody,” the suit alleges. “DSS is re-victimizing the very children it is charged to protect.”
Chaney Adams, a spokeswoman for Gov. Nikki Haley, said in response to the suit that the state’s children are a top priority for the governor.
“Governor Haley believes that protecting South Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens, our children, is the state’s most important job,” she said. “That’s why the governor has been actively pursuing a new direction for the agency including hiring new case workers and human services specialists, enhanced training for those professionals and improving coordination with key stakeholders such as law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals and families. We will continue to pursue reforms at DSS — knowing that our work will never be done protecting the children of South Carolina.”
The suit names Haley and Susan Alford, the newly appointed director of DSS, as defendants.
The suit comes a year after the Legislature began delving into the state Department of Social Services over the agency’s handling of abused and neglected children, including some who died.
The agency’s then-director, Lillian Koller, resigned in the summer following calls for her ouster by some lawmakers. Following a scathing report by the Legislative Audit Council, the agency agreed to seek and hire more caseworkers to reduce caseloads, though lawmakers will have to provide funding for the next budget year.
The groups filing Monday’s lawsuit — national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Center and Matthew T. Richardson, partner at the South Carolina law firm Wyche P.A., noted that deficiencies detailed in the lawsuit have been known for decades.
“For the 25 years that I have been advocating on behalf of South Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens, DSS has continuously failed to make changes to ensure kids in foster care are protected and given proper treatment,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Since South Carolina has repeatedly ignored its own admissions about the system, we have no choice but to act and demand reform.”
The lawsuit alleges three broad problems it wants the state to address, a “drastic” shortage of foster homes, excessive caseloads and inadequate health care.
The litigation paints a series of horror stories involving individual children at the heart of the suit.
Issues have included repeated placements, changing caseworkers, inadequate health care, a lack of mental health or medical assessments and questionable placements to facilities described as inappropriate and in some cases, dangerous.
According to the lawsuit, a 15-year-old girl was placed in a Charleston facility for girls for 10 months where she suffered maltreatment. She and other residents lacked sufficient food and some of what they had was expired or moldy, according to the suit.
The physical conditions were unsanitary and in disrepair, according to the suit, which alleged there were feces on the shower floor for more than a month.
Staff withheld the girl’s depression medication as punishment, according to the suit. She also suffered inappropriate touching and sexual advances, the suit alleges.
A 16-year-old girl who has been moved in 12 placements over eight years was physically abused by one foster mother, according to the suit. Although she has severe hearing loss, the girl has not received services to address her need, according to the suit.
Her stays have included the Medical University of South Carolina and a group home, where she still resides and “languishes,” according to the suit. She has lost weight and “desperately” wants to live with a foster family, according to the suit.
The girl’s social worker, her third since entering DSS custody, has told her there are not enough foster homes and there is no other place for her, she suit states.
The caseloads of foster care caseworkers and child protective services investigators frequently exceed two times and often three or four times national standards and DSS’s own policy standards, according to the suit. The LAC found DSS child welfare caseloads are “excessive, reducing the amount of attention that can be given to each child” and “reducing the ability of caseworkers to investigate and prevent child abuse and neglect.”
South Carolina’s own standards call for caseloads of 14 to 20 children, according to the groups, but according to last fall’s report by the Legislative Audit Council, 58 percent of workers had caseloads exceeding state standards, 19 percent were assigned more than 50 children, and some were even responsible for more than 75 children.
The caseloads, “combined with persistent high turnover, result in an unstable workforce that does not and cannot provide basic monitoring of children’s safety,” the lawsuit alleges.
DSS fails to ensure timely medical, dental and mental health assessments, periodic screens and required treatment for children in DSS custody, according to the lawsuit. The 2014 DSS Plan, according to the suit, documents a “lack of medical assessments, medical or dental records on file or collateral contacts made with medical providers to obtain assessments or documentation of appointments, make referrals to address medical issues” as well as a lack of medications.
“Foster care is supposed to be a safe haven for abused and neglected children, yet South Carolina is re-victimizing the kids it’s supposed to protect,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights. “There’s got to be accountability when longstanding systemic problems, like a severe lack of mental health services, gross over-reliance on institutions and high caseloads, continue to harm innocent children.”
The 11 named plaintiffs, representing all children in state care, range in age from 2 to 17 and collectively have lived in foster homes and institutions across the state.
The suit asks the court to fix three problems in the system — the shortage of foster homes, excessive caseworker caseloads and inadequate health care for children.