How South Carolina’s Foster Care System Is Failing The Most Vulnerable Kids

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/KATHERINE WELLES
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/KATHERINE WELLES

Longstanding allegations of physical assault by staff, feces on a shower floor for more than a month, doling out of expired food, and the withholding of medication have amounted to a federal case against South Carolina’s foster care program.

Earlier this week, child welfare advocates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS), claiming that it has threatened the lives of thousands of children in the foster care system. The lawsuit, which involves 11 plaintiffs, cited an overwhelming caseload for employees, poor health care services, and a dearth of foster homes as key issues.

“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,” Ira Lustbader, the litigation director for Children’s Rights, a New York nonprofit that is involved in the lawsuit and has previously sued South Carolina officials, told the New York Times.

The ongoing lawsuit comes on the heels of a Legislative Audit Council report that said DSS used unreliable data, failed to ask for additional funds, and ignored growing problems in the foster care system. The audit also found that the agency didn’t do its due diligence in placing each foster child in a safe home.

The child welfare advocates going after DSS cited the scathing audit in their case. Other allegations cite the state’s placement of children who enter the juvenile justice system in detention facilities father than homes, and the potential maltreatment of children with pressing mental health needs.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley has acknowledged deficiencies in DSS, appointing Susan Alford as the agency’s director last month and announcing plans to hire 200 case workers earlier this week. But for the groups bringing the lawsuit against DSS, that hasn’t sufficed. According to court documents, representatives of the plaintiffs said they want a court-appointed monitor who would oversee caseload restrictions, regular health screenings, and sibling visitation privileges for some children.

Despite criticism about the manner in which she has addressed DSS’ shortcomings, Haley said that other agencies across the country are embroiled in similar battles. There’s some merit in Haley’s assertion, especially given the fact that the number of children in foster care in the United States has more than doubled since the 1980s. Concurrently, the number of foster parents has fallen due to what members of the National Foster Parent Association consider weak financial support and increased regulation of children’s living environments.

The dearth in placement often causes many of nearly 750,000 youngsters funneled into the foster care system to spend more time in group homes than preferred family environments, which complicates their transition into an independent adulthood. Additionally, many state-funded group homes have turned into de-facto mental health institutions where foster children receive psychotropic medication at a rate two to three times higher than their counterparts. A cocktail of medications — sometimes more than three — often serves as a panacea for ongoing psychological disorders that stem from the trauma of abuse and neglect.

For more than a decade, experts have touted the importance of quickly placing foster children in safe, supportive environments. That usually doesn’t happen in foster systems where case workers feel overwhelmed, quality mental health services remain close to nonexistent, and able-bodied foster parents and relatives are nowhere in sight.

The effects of neglect can be harrowing for youngsters undergoing a period of rapid physical and mental development. Data from the University of Pennsylvania Collaborative on Community Integration shows that children who stay in the foster care system for more than two years often have a greater likelihood of being delinquent in school, becoming a parent at a young age, and earning less than their counterparts over the course of their lifetime. This holds especially true when supervisors in foster homes don’t address the trauma that children experience when separated from family, regardless of whether they have been abused in the home.

Even with a push at the federal level for states to improve its services for foster children, South Carolina hasn’t quite gotten its act together, even as North Carolina, Texas, and Rhode Island introduced programs to streamline the assignment of children to foster homes and hire more mental health professionals.

Last year, a newborn under DSS’ supervision died within two weeks of being assigned to a family after his foster mother allegedly placed him in a shoebox instead of a crib. A 17-year-old foster child currently sits in the Pickens County Detention Center because the state doesn’t have a placement for him. The young man has been in 28 foster homes since the age of three. A foster mother in Midlands, SC also filed charges against DSS, alleging that the agency didn’t provide a caseworker and counselor for her 12-year-old foster child, a victim of incest and sexual abuse. The foster mother alleged that the state’s neglect caused the child to attempt suicide twice.

“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,” Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, another organization that’s involved in the lawsuit, told Greenville Online. “Since South Carolina has repeatedly ignored its own admissions about the system, we have no choice but to act and demand reform.”