Two children's advocacy groups have filed a class-action lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS), claiming that widespread deficiencies in the system have endangered thousands of children.
The suit, Michelle H. v. Haley, by the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, child safety advocacy group Children's Rights, and 11 children in foster care was filed January 12 in the Charleston Division of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.
The suit was filed on behalf of nearly 3,400 "abused and neglected" children statewide and names Gov. Nikki Haley and acting DSS Director Susan Alford. The 11 plaintiffs, representing all children in state care, range in age from 2 to 17, and they collectively have lived in foster homes and institutions across the state, suffering in myriad ways, according to the complaint.
The state agency does not provide basic medical, dental, and mental health evaluations, screenings, and treatment as required by law, the complaint states. It also cites dangerous deficiencies in South Carolina's child welfare system, including a drastic shortage of foster homes, excessive caseloads, and a failure to provide children with basic healthcare.
"Children have been and continue to be harmed physically, psychologically, and emotionally, and continue to be placed at constant risk of such harms while in DSS custody," the suit states.
"Foster care is supposed to be a safe haven for abused and neglected children, yet South Carolina is revictimizing 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 overreliance on institutions and high caseloads, continue to harm innocent children."
According to the complaint, child maltreatment in foster care goes uninvestigated, inaccurate data mask a much higher rate of abuse and neglect in care than the state reports to the federal government, and caseworkers are so overburdened that kids suffer unnecessary harms. South Carolina's own standards call for caseloads of 14 to 20 children, but according to a 2014 report released by the Legislature, 58% of workers had caseloads exceeding state standards, 19% were assigned more than 50 children, and some were even responsible for more than 75 children, the group said.
Many of the deficiencies detailed in the suit have been known for decades, but the suit alleges that DSS has failed to make needed fixes.
Failure to provide basic healthcare services
The suit claims DSS does not provide basic healthcare services, failing to ensure timely medical, dental, and mental health assessments, periodic screens, and required treatment for children in its custody as required by federal and state laws, as well as DSS policy.
"The 2014 DSS Plan 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 and contacts with service providers.' The plan also found that 'appropriate referrals ... were not made,' " the complaint states. The 2010 DSS Annual Progress and Services Report also found that many foster children's medical needs are not monitored, and children frequently do not receive needed follow-up treatment.
DSS' failure to provide consistently and timely required assessments, screenings, and follow-up treatment to children in DSS custody "directly causes harm to and deterioration" to the children's physical health, the complaint states.
"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."