COLUMBIA, S.C. -
Several South Carolina state senators say they'll try to make changes at the state Department of Social Services after looking into problems at the agency.
"It is the whole system. I feel like our system is broken," Paige Greene told a special Senate DSS Oversight subcommittee Wednesday. She's the executive director of Richland County CASA, the guardian ad litum program for abused and neglected children in Richland County.
The subcommittee also heard from Kelley and Robert Heidt, whose 5-year-old granddaughter was taken from her parents because of an anonymous phone tip alleging that the girl's father had sexually abused her.
"A couple of minutes of their time to look into that phone call would've proven there was nothing to it," says Kelley Heidt. "But they kept her in foster care 31 days away from our families." Her granddaughter continues to have nightmares, she says.
She says the anonymous tip came from someone who overheard a group of 5-year-old girls talking on the playground and one of them said something inappropriate. "It was another little girl on the playground who said something. It wasn't even my granddaughter. But they didn't even bother to investigate. They didn't ask one person," Mrs. Heidt says.
DSS later admitted that they made a mistake and there had been no abuse.
While the Heidts' granddaughter shouldn't have been taken from her home, according to DSS's own lawyer, Laura Hudson, vice-chair of the State Child Fatality Review Committee, says sometimes DSS is too slow to take children out of dangerous homes.
She told senators about one case. "The child was in North Carolina with grandparents, came back into South Carolina. It appears, and I'm saying it appears, allegedly, that the caseworker in South Carolina never saw the child. The child ended up dead. The child had cigarette burns on her private parts. She had bruises. It was a brutal, brutal example of consistent abuse. If our caseworker in South Carolina had actually looked at that child, they might've been able to prevent that death," Hudson told senators.
Charleston attorney Ellen Babb says putting a child in foster care doesn't guarantee the child is safe, though. She told senators the story of a baby named Aidan.
"DSS workers knew that the foster mother was keeping the infant in a sweater box," she said. "Little Aidan died in that sweater box, in blankets." She says that foster mother said she planned to foster other infants and would continue to put them to sleep in the same sweater box.
Oversight subcommittee member Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said in some cases DSS is taking children out of homes too quickly while in other cases putting them back in their homes too quickly. "It leads me to question the whole way the management and the implementation and the process is working at all," he said.
The subcommittee wants to hear from DSS director Lillian Koller next week to answer their questions. Koller had been on a limited work schedule after a medical issue last month, but Gov. Nikki Haley, who appointed Koller to head DSS, said Thursday that Koller was back at work.
"We are both mothers," Gov. Haley told 7 On Your Side. "We both talk about the issues she faces, and no one is more committed or more heartfelt than she is to make sure that we save every child that we can."
Despite the horror stories senators heard, South Carolina's child death rate is actually down. In 2009, 73 children died after DSS got involved with them and their families. In 2013, that number was down to 58.