Coroners, former agency heads testify in DSS hearings - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Coroners, former agency heads testify in DSS hearings

Oversight Committee chair members have been hearing testimony about DSS for several weeks. Oversight Committee chair members have been hearing testimony about DSS for several weeks.

Since they began their investigation last year, senators on the Department of Social Services Oversight Committee have heard passionate testimony from parents and child advocates all saying the agency is grossly mishandling child welfare cases.

On Wednesday, county coroners and two former leaders within the agency testified that the problems go a lot deeper than previously realized.

The testimony from Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten was the latest attempt by lawmakers to understand how more than 300 children since 2009 with ties to DSS ended up losing their lives.

Watts testified about one child who had been beaten and bitten.

"It had broken bones. These things happened months before this child was killed," said Watts.

"Too many times, I've asked the question, 'Do you have an open case with this child,' and I'm told 'No.' But if I don't ask, 'Has there ever been an open case with this child,' then I don't get that information; it's not freely volunteered," said Wooten.

Silence and surprise accompanied much of the testimony with many calling for the department to be rebuilt.

"In one case there were 15 visits to a home in six years and DSS kept returning the child and the child dies," said state Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Kershaw and Richland). "I've come to this conclusion: We got a director who is unwilling to come talk to us. I think it's time for new leadership at the agency."

Former agency leaders say case workers are being overworked, but DSS data paints a different picture.

"They're carrying over 70 investigations, which is impossible," said former Richland County DSS Director Allen Carter.

"Yours have 70, but the agency is telling me six," said Lourie. "There are alarms and sirens going off on this case."

In a closed-door meeting after the hearing, DSS officials told us they're addressing staffing issues to start.

"We're up to 990 now, and we're not done," said DSS Deputy State Director Jessica Hanak-Coulter. "We're going to continue to get staff to do this work."

A representative for Director Lillian Koller has said she will not be able to testify and answer lawmakers questions until at least April due to a heart condition.

Gov. Nikki Haley's spokesman, Doug Mayer, released a statement about these allegations.

"There is nothing more important than the welfare of our children and under Director Koller's watch child deaths have decreased 25 percent, adoptions have increased 11 percent, and we have successfully moved over 20,000 people from welfare to work. Governor Haley has and will continue to support her efforts to protect and better the lives of South Carolina families and children," said Mayer.

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