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Coroners Lower Boom On Embattled SC Welfare Agency




By Amy Lazenby || Two county coroners testified this week before a legislative subcommittee charged with investigating the ongoing fiasco at the Palmetto state’s child welfare agency – the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS).

Once again the embattled director of the agency – Lillian Koller – failed to appear before the subcommittee to respond to allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

In Koller’s absence, State Senators Tom Young, Jr. (R-Aiken) Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) and Joel Lourie (D-Richland) heard heartbreaking accounts from Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten about children who died during open investigations at SCDSS.

Watts referenced the tragic case of a four-year-old boy named Robert Guilyard Jr. who was murdered in his home last summer. Case files indicated there were fifteen SCDSS reports from the home in which Robert lived (and died) over a seven year period, seven of which specifically mentioned him.

According to SCDSS’ own policies, in a home where abuse or neglect has been documented by the agency, a case should not be referred to an outside/third party for services, but that is exactly what occurred in Robert’s case.

Coroner Watts testified to incredulous subcommittee members that he did not believe the high number of child fatalities in the past two years was a “boots on the ground” issue. Watts said the indication he got while completing death investigations was that caseworkers were pressured by “higher-ups” at SCDSS to lower the number of abuse cases at the agency by farming them out to independent child welfare groups to reduce the number of cases on the books, and this prevented social workers from adequately protecting South Carolina’s children.

Watts also volunteered that he was contacted by SCDSS at around the same time the agency was notified he would be testifying, and three days before subcommittee hearing was called to a meeting with three SCDSS employees who wanted to to let him know about new procedures being put in place at the agency. Lourie found the timing of that meeting “troubling.”

Coroner Wooten testified that, contrary to Governor Nikki Haley’s assessment las week that Koller was a “rock star” under whom “all the numbers that I worked with her on have improved,” the child fatality situation at SCDSS has not gotten any better over the past two years in her experience. Although she has questioned why children were returned to homes where alleged abuse took place in the past, it seemed to her that in the last two years, she has dealt with an increase in what she called “glaring” cases – those where multiple red flags were raised prior to a homicide. Wooten said that while some legal loopholes could be closed, she has seen a basic “lack of common sense” from SCDSS.

Wooten cited problems she encountered with investigative transparency. “If you don’t ask the right questions of DSS, you don’t get the full picture,” she said. Child fatality cases Wooten investigated involved multiple family interactions with DSS, incidents of reported abuse, and findings of “unfounded” cases that eventually resulted in murders. Wooten said there was no way to determine if an allegation was inappropriately handled and expressed a desire to see a much greater level of transparency at the agency. She also testified that many caseworkers she came into contact with in the course of death investigations were frustrated with outcomes and believed that their agency was not doing enough to help their charges – parenting classes and drug treatment programs not withstanding.

In addition to the two coroners, several former SCDSS employees testified about a culture of fear, intimidation, bullying, and pressure to get cases “off the books” at the agency during Koller’s tenure.

Koller has been working from home since suffering an apparent stroke last December and has not testified before the special Senate subcommittee, but she has been seen in her office and at public functions, including the Governor’s State of the State address and a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion last week.

At the start of the hearing, Sen. Young Stated that Koller informed the subcommittee that she anticipated being well enough to testify before the body by April or May, and he assured those in attendance that her testimony would be taken – even if it meant waiting longer than that.

An outraged Sen. Lourie insisted that it was time for Koller to “leave the agency.”


Amy Lazenby is the Associate Opinion Editor for FITSNews. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz.