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October 10, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

In South Carolina, children who’ve had contact with Child Protective Services are dying at an unprecedented rate this year, while CPS channels serious abuse cases to private contractors that aren’t trained to handle them. That’s the disturbing word from this article (Free Times, 10/2/13). Meanwhile, the state agency that runs Child Protective Services is covering up the tragic facts with bureaucratic maneuvering.

It seems Lillian Koller, director of the state Department of Social Services, wants the figures to look good, and, according to the DSS website, they do.

Among the numbers highlighted: From July 2011 to January 2012, DSS finalized more than 450 adoptions and 250 family reunifications of children in long-term foster care, a “record-breaking achievement” for South Carolina; in 2010, the agency eliminated a significant case backlog, some of nearly 25,000 child abuse and neglect reports pending 60 days or more.

Who could argue with that? More kids without parents placed in adoptive homes, more kids with parents returned to them and a huge backlog of old cases eliminated – poof! – just like that.

Well, it turns out a lot of people could argue, and their complaints have been heard by the state legislature that’s appointed a team to audit Child Protective Services. Their report is due out in early 2014.

There’s one bit of data that Koller isn’t as enthusiastic about sharing with the taxpayers of South Carolina – the number of child deaths. It’s taken some doing, but the Free Times learned that, so far this year, 31 children who were on CPS’s radar, have died due to abuse or neglect. The usual number for an entire year is between 20 and 25.

Also important is how the agency manages to keep its caseloads so low. One way is to simply assign them to private organizations that contract with DSS to provide services to children and parents in need. That’s called the Voluntary Case Management program which, as the name implies, was originally designed to deal only with cases in which the children were not seriously at risk. So, for example, the Voluntary Case Management program offers parenting classes to parents who may need a nudge in the right direction on parenting issues.

Obviously, that program was never meant to deal with serious cases of child abuse or neglect or even identify them. For one thing, its caseworkers typically receive only one day of training, but former CPS employee with 36 years at the agency, Linda Martin, says Koller is keeping her caseloads down by shunting even dangerous cases to VCM organizations.

Instead, Martin says, workers are encouraged to funnel at-risk children into the Voluntary Case Management program, an invention of Koller’s that relies on a network of private contractors, mostly nonprofits, to ameliorate problems of child neglect in households. The program offers parenting education for willing participants, for example. “It’s only supposed to be for very, very low-level cases,” Martin says. “You don’t leave a non-state worker with a case that is dangerous, but she (Koller) is doing it.” She added that those who staff the Voluntary Case Management program only receive a day’s worth of training, which she deemed dreadfully insufficient for dealing with children from troubled backgrounds.

Pushing ever more – and ever more serious – cases onto Voluntary Case Management organizations may make CPS’s statistics look good, but it’s a disaster for kids. Not only are the VCM employees not trained properly, they’re apparently saddled with caseloads far larger than they should be.

A service provider contracted by DSS for Voluntary Case Management services, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the program, “We were only supposed to see 300 cases in a year, and we just hit 16 months, and 1,200 cases is what we’ve seen.”

That’s three times the number they were told they’d be handling. So when one service provider to CPS wondered “They dropped [their numbers] significantly, and, I’d love to know, where are these kids going?” it looks like the answer is “to VCM.”

And it’s not just the outsized numbers of children being shoved into the care of organizations that are ill-equipped, understaffed and undertrained to handle them. No, contrary to what DSS promised, they’re getting some of the worst cases of abuse and neglect, i.e. the very ones they’re least able to deal with.

The service provider added: “We weren’t supposed to be seeing any sexual abuse in this program, we weren’t supposed to see any domestic violence, and we’re seeing both of them. What [DSS] told us we were going to be seeing just wasn’t true.”

The same, it seems, could be said about the DSS website.

It’s particularly disgraceful for a state agency that’s supposed to be protecting children from abuse and neglect to pay more attention to how its statistics appear on its website than to doing that job. Handing those kids off to undertrained and understaffed organizations just to maintain the pretense that all is well in Lillian Koller’s agency should be met with immediate discipline from Governor Nikki Haley.

Much of this is new. Over the years, we see Child Protective Services agencies in state after state behaving incompetently, dangerously and secretly. But until now we’ve not seen agency directors putting children at even greater risk just to make their numbers look good.

What’s familiar, though, is that everyone quoted in the linked-to article who’s critical of Koller, except Martin, who’s no longer at the agency, refused to be named. Why?

The service provider, like three others who spoke with Free Times for this article, requested anonymity, saying she fears retaliation from DSS, which could eliminate funding for her shelter.

That’s how those people roll. They commit the most outrageous violations of the public trust, lie to service providers and endanger children in the process, but let anyone call them on their behavior and it’s retaliation time. As in every state I’ve written about, for Child Protective Services the coin of the realm is secrecy that they’ll go to just about any lengths to maintain.

In Arizona, CPS refuses to divulge information to the press about child fatalities it’s required by law to disclose. In New York the agency yearly lobbies the legislature for ever greater secrecy measures. In California, CPS in several counties outright ignored the law on disclosure, ignored subpoenas for records and stonewalled the legislature’s auditor. Now in South Carolina, presumably competent providers cower in terror of losing their funding if it’s learned they told the truth about what’s going on behind Lillian Koller’s veil of smiley-face claims.

Sometime in early 2014, we’ll know more.  For now, there’s good reason to believe that Lillian Koller and her Department of Social Services are endangering the children of the state to make the bottom line look good.

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