South Carolina’s Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (SCDDSN) has been nothing short of a disaster in recent years – yet another unfortunate example of what happens when political appointees are put in charge of a byzantine maze of unaccountable bureaucracies.
In February of 2021, the agency’s commission dismissed its former director amidst allegations of “fiscal irregularities” after less than two years on the job. That was the second time in less than five years a DDSN director was forced to step down amid scandal.
Responsible for serving individuals with intellectual disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries, SCDDSN is supposed to coordinate care between the federal government and a sprawling network of county-level organizations.
Until recently, though, it hadn’t been doing that … or at least not especially well.
“SCDDSN is emblematic of the Palmetto State’s unaccountable, duplicative and ineffective bureaucratic approach to public health,” I wrote in the fall of 2017 when the agency’s previous director, Beverly Buscemi, resigned her post.
Buscemi stepped down after reporter Tim Smith of The Greenville News uncovered “a troubling record of resident deaths, staff arrests, lawsuits and allegations of abuse and neglect” at the agency.
Over the last fourteen months, though, SCDDSN had seen a remarkable turnaround thanks to the efforts of Dr. Michelle Fry – who took over as state director on October 11, 2021. Unlike her predecessors, Fry actively pushed to hold service providers accountable for their actions – putting the agency’s priorities back where they belonged (i.e. on the clients served through the state’s network of disability providers).
Unfortunately, Fry will not be remaining at her post much longer …
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“I have been honored to serve DDSN,” Fry (above) said in a statement provided to this news outlet late Monday. “I am so grateful for and amazed by all of the positive changes that have already occurred or are very much in the works. I have reached the difficult decision to resign as state director effective January 6, 2023. This is a very difficult decision because I respect, admire, and genuinely enjoy working with the DDSN staff and the work that we do at DDSN.
“The work by DDSN truly improves the lives of the most vulnerable South Carolinians,” Fry continued. “I am confident that the DDSN executive leadership team is comprised of the right people with the right expertise to ensure that the services provided by DDSN continue to improve the services we offer and make positive impacts for those whom we serve.”
Fry noted that while she was stepping down, “the commission has asked and I’ve happily agreed to continue to consult with the agency to continue to contribute to the important work of DDSN and ensure that all of the current initiatives continue to move forward.”
Nonetheless, state lawmakers who have cheered Fry’s accomplishments over the past year were disappointed – and blasted SCDDSN’s board for sabotaging her attempts to fix this badly broken bureaucracy.
“This is what happens to good people in South Carolina,” said state senator Katrina Shealy. “She’s the best thing that happened to DDSN in a long time and she quit because the board ran her off.”
Shealy singled out commissioners David Thomas (a former state senator), Robin Blackwood and commission chairwoman Stephanie M. Rawlinson as being responsible for Fry’s decision to leave the agency.
“She was trying to make changes and they wouldn’t let her make the changes she needed to make,” Shealy told me. “They would come in and monitor everything she did – they micromanaged everything she did. Everything she did, they would come in after and undo it.”
Like the results-challenged S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC), this agency is run by a commission appointed by governor Henry McMaster with the advice and consent of the S.C. Senate. If that sounds duplicative, it is.
There is absolutely no reason either of these agencies should have a bunch of politicos standing in the way of a direct line of accountability between their leaders and the state’s chief executive. The only reason to have such a commission? CYA.
Shealy told me she plans on filing legislation in the coming session of the S.C. General Assembly which would eliminate this commission and make the next SCDDSN leader directly accountable to the governor.
For those of you keeping score at home, SCDDSN was given $690.1 million in the state budget which took effect on July 1, 2022 – including $123.5 million in general fund revenues.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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