South Carolina state senator Katrina Shealy is pushing legislation to create a state department of children’s advocacy – one headed up by statewide children’s advocate appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the State Senate.
Of course the governor’s choice would be limited to nominees chosen by a legislatively controlled panel.
Shealy’s bill – S. 805 – cleared a Senate committee last week and is currently on the floor of the chamber awaiting a vote. It’s being held up there, however, by state senator Gerald Malloy (more on that in a moment).
We were initially inclined to oppose Shealy’s bill (we tend to reflexively rebuke expansions in government), but it turns out her proposal would actually eliminate a pair of ceremonial children’s ombudsman positions – one in the governor’s office and another in the state’s sprawling Department of Administration (SCDOA).
The existing ombudsman posts have limited reach – and no subpoena power. Shealy’s new office would have unlimited scope – as well as the ability to compel documents and testimony related to specific cases.
Anyway, the legislation has no fiscal impact on the state budget – and might actually wind up shrinking government.
According to a Senate committee report on the legislation, Shealy’s bill would “perform independent investigations of critical incidents involving children in the care of (state agencies)” while at the same time reviewing agency investigations of these cases.
The state advocate would also serve on the S.C. Child Fatality Advisory Committee, a panel which reviews suspicious child deaths.
“This will be one of the most important pieces of legislation we will pass this year,” Shealy told us. “We can protect children regardless of which agency touches a child because now there is a place for the public to go to and report issues affecting that child. Independent oversight is what this agency is going to provide, and that’s essential when it comes to holding our government accountable.”
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(Via Travis Bell Photography)
Children’s advocates support Shealy’s bill – arguing it would provide much needed oversight of agencies like the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS), which has habitually failed to protect children entrusted to its care.
SCDSS has been an unmitigated disaster for years on multiple fronts, with one of its former directors losing her job in the aftermath of the sad and shocking tale of Robert Guinyard, Jr. – a four-year-old boy who was placed into an abusive home by SCDSS despite repeated warnings about his safety.
(To read another recent example of blood on the agency’s hands, click here).
Erin Hall, CEO of the Palmetto Association for Children and Families (PAFCAF), testified earlier this year on behalf of the legislation when it was moving through the committee process.
“We support S. 805 and agree continued oversight is needed to best serve children and families within the child welfare system,” Hall testified. “Bottom line: we want children placed in the appropriate setting; we want to find the best fit for each child in foster care because each child has different needs.”
“We need to be on the same page – again, DSS, our providers and our state association – to do the best work for kids,” Hall added.
Laura Hudson, one of the state’s most widely known and well-respected victim’s advocates, also supports Shealy in her efforts to protect children. Hudson told us she is especially concerned about agencies failing to adequately investigate incidents involving substance abuse.
“Parenting under the influence is a rampant problem in South Carolina,” Hudson said. “Of the child fatalities reported in 2017, 32 percent of those deaths involved substance abuse. DSS must do a better job of removing children exposed to substances. Sixteen of those fatality cases in 2017 involved marijuana usage by caregivers.”
SCDSS doesn’t think it needs to do a “better job,” however. According to our sources, the agency is lobbying furiously to defeat Shealy’s bill – which may be the reason Malloy is blocking it.
“He’s carried their water before I see him carrying it again on this legislation,” one veteran GOP senator told us. “Lawyer-legislators don’t like any bill that might cut down on the number of lawsuits.”
Others attributed Malloy’s obstruction to an ongoing fight between Senate Democrats and “Republicans” over recent rules changes and an increasingly controversial (albeit pointless) debate over proposed gun control legislation.
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(Via Travis Bell Photography)
We reached out to Malloy (above) for a comment, but he declined to discuss the legislation with us. We also reached out to SCDSS director of communications and legislative affairs Karen Wingo, who has historically refused to respond to our requests for comment, but did not immediately receive a response from her, either.
In the event Malloy decides to discuss the issue – or in the event we receive some sort of response from SCDSS – we will update our readers with that information.
Our view? We think Shealy’s bill has merit – although we would make the proposed statewide children’s advocate position a direct gubernatorial appointment, not one in which the legislature selects a slate of candidates for the governor to choose from. That strikes us as diluting accountability, not strengthening it.
Beyond that, though, we certainly see the necessity for this position … and we believe if implemented appropriately such an office could save taxpayers millions of dollars each year in legal costs related to botched child welfare cases.
We’re also pleased to see Shealy getting creative with the funding for the program – essentially taking two toothless victim’s advocate offices and consolidating them into a single entity with some actual teeth.
“(These offices) are most effective when operating with genuine independence, appropriate authority, a credible review process and resources that correspond to the breadth of their mandates,” a white paper supporting the bill stated.
We agree with that …
South Carolina’s network of child welfare agencies is in dire need of this sort of oversight, and Shealy seems to have found a way to provide it at no cost (in fact, at a possible savings) to taxpayers. Accordingly, we would encourage state lawmakers to move this bill to the governor’s desk.
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