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Lazenby: Nikki Haley Must Remove Embattled Welfare Director




By Amy Lazenby || The embattled director of the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS) finally appeared this week before a State Senate panel charged with investigating the ongoing fiasco at the Palmetto State’s child welfare agency. Director Lillian Koller was grilled for nearly three hours by State Senators Tom Young, Jr. (R-Aiken) Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) and Joel Lourie (D-Richland).

The special subcommittee has spent months investigating claims that the agency failed to appropriately handle abuse cases that eventually led to the deaths of children.

Previously, the panel has taken testimony from from child-welfare advocates, county coroners and former SCDSS employees relating to the allegation that child deaths have increased during Koller’s tenure at the agency. Before this week’s hearing, Koller had been working from home since suffering an apparent stroke last December and had not testified before the special Senate subcommittee. She has been seen, however, in her office and at public functions, including Gov. Nikki Haley’s State of the State address and a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion last month.

Koller was questioned not only about the deaths of children who were supposedly being followed by SCDSS, but also about social workers’ caseloads at the agency as well as the processing time of cases. Declining to resign from her position in the face of mounting criticism, Koller told the senators, “If I thought that my resignation would save the life of even one child, the governor would have my resignation.”

Koller insisted that child fatalities were investigated and that several caseworkers had left the agency as a result, and she also told legislators that changes could be made in state law that would help the agency do a better job of protecting South Carolina’s children. The panel was clearly not satisfied with the answers it received from Koller, and senators plan to recall her for more questioning in the next two to three weeks.

At this point it has become clear that Governor Haley must remove Lillian Koller from office. Changes in caseworker staffing and regulations could certainly help the situation at SCDSS, but those “fixes” do not get to the root of the problem – a director whose “leadership” has failed South Carolina’s children.

One county coroner testified last month that he did not believe the high number of child fatalities seen at SCDSS in the past two years was a “boots on the ground” issue. He 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 children.

Additionally, several former SCDSS employees have testified before the panel about a culture of fear, intimidation, bullying and pressure to get cases “off the books” at the agency during Koller’s tenure.

Governor Haley continues to stand by her appointee, however, insisting that child deaths have dropped 25 percent since Koller took office. If those numbers are the result of the agency farming out cases to independent child welfare groups to dump children from its rolls, however, that’s not an accurate assessment – it’s cooking the books at the expense of abused and neglected children.

Another county coroner testified previously that, contrary to Governor Haley’s assessment last month 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 the coroner 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 – during Koller’s tenure at the agency – she has dealt with an increase in what she called “glaring” cases – those where multiple red flags were raised prior to a homicide. The coroner said that while some legal loopholes could be closed, she has seen a basic “lack of common sense” from SCDSS leadership.

Haley doubled down on her defense of her appointee after this week’s hearing, however, issuing the following statement through her spokesman, Doug Mayer:

“Director Koller showed today exactly why the governor appointed her in the first place – she is a committed advocate for South Carolina’s children, and someone who has overseen dramatic improvement in an agency that deals with some of the toughest, most tragic situations in our state. Governor Haley is proud of director Koller, the staff at DSS, and the changes they have made.”

One senator from the governor’s own party who has been serving on the special subcommittee doesn’t appear to be as certain about Koller’s leadership abilities. Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) said after the hearing, “I think that we’re at a point now that we have to make a decision (about whether Koller should continue as Director of SCDSS). I’m not the person to get to make that decision, but I think somebody needs to make a decision.”

Because the SCDSS Director is a cabinet-level position, only the governor can remove her. Several officials, most notably Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland), have called for Koller to step down. Because Koller has now refused to resign, it is time for Governor Haley to remove her. It is past time, actually. By continuing to stand behind an appointee who has exhibited such poor judgement and a clear failure of leadership at the expense of one of the state’s most vulnerable populations – abused and neglected children – Governor Haley is allowing her own judgement and leadership ability to be called into question.


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