For the second time this year, South Carolina state auditors are calling out the Palmetto State’s scandal-scarred Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (SCDDSN).
Our news outlet has reported on issues plaguing this agency for years, referring to it as “another unfortunate example of what happens when political appointees are put in charge of a byzantine maze of unaccountable bureaucracies.”
Two-and-a-half years ago, the agency’s commission dismissed its former director amidst allegations of “fiscal irregularities” after less than two years on the job. Last December, Dr. Michelle Fry – who had been on the job for fourteen months – resigned from her post.
Fry was allegedly run off over her efforts to (finally) start holding the agency accountable.
“This is what happens to good people in South Carolina,” state senator Katrina Shealy told me at the time. “She’s the best thing that happened to DDSN in a long time and she quit because the board ran her off.”
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. Like the results-challenged S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC), it run by a commission appointed by governor Henry McMaster with the advice and consent of the S.C. Senate – a duplicative arrangement that creates an extra and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.
And in this case, a corrosive layer of bureaucracy …
(Click to view)
According to a report issued on Monday (October 23, 2023) by the S.C. Legislative Audit Council (SCLAC), the agency is failing to protect those in its care from abuse, neglect and exploitation.
“DDSN does not have an adequate system to ensure that employee caregivers dismissed for abuse, neglect, or exploitation (ANE) are not rehired elsewhere in the system,” the report (.pdf) claimed. “We found several cases where employees were terminated for ANE violations, but the employee was either rehired or allowed to have the official reason for separation noted as ‘personal’ instead of ‘terminated.’”
“Regional center employees involved in allegations of ANE may have been allowed to resign in lieu of termination,” the report continued. “We found five employees listed in separation reports as having resigned for personal reasons even though the ANE investigation files stated that they were terminated.”
Auditors made it clear this finding of institutional negligence should have come as no surprise to anyone at the agency.
“We have previously noted the need for an adult abuse registry in our 2008 and 2014 audits of DDSN,” the report noted.
The audit also found SCDDSN employees failed to report ANE allegations in a timely manner.
“We reviewed a statistically-valid sample of 63 ANE investigations and found 11 allegations of ANE that took two or more days from the date of the incident to be reported,” the audit found. “One incident at the Pee Dee Center was reported 82 days after it occurred; this was only because central office staff noticed suspected ANE during review of video for another incident.”
Speaking of video footage, auditors found reports of ANE allegations provided by the agency varied dramatically from the footage of those incidents.
“In one case, regional center staff reported that employees used a consumer’s clothing to move the consumer; however, later review of video showed that the consumer was actually dragged across the floor,” the audit noted. “The discrepancies between the regional center’s report and what really occurred would not have been discovered without review of video.”
No wonder SCDDSN failed to check the tape in an estimated 70 percent of consumer-reported ANE complaints – and why it regularly deletes surveillance footage due to “limited storage space.”
In addition to its lax oversight of abuse allegations, SCDDSN is failing at its core mission: Efficiently serving South Carolinians with disabilities and special needs.
“Extensive wait times for individuals with critical needs may have led to unnecessary institutionalizations,” auditors reported.
RELATED | DISABILITIES DIRECTOR STEPPING DOWN
A prior audit (.pdf) published in March of this year made no secret as to where the problems at SCDDSN originated. According to that report, its politically appointed commissioners “likely violated FOIA by engaging in meetings via email correspondence and misusing executive sessions.”
Commissioners also allegedly “used their positions to access information and acquire assistance for their own family members receiving DDSN services” and “micromanaged the agency, were overly involved in agency personnel actions and threatened the agency director’s job.”
Those findings confirmed senator Shealy’s account of how Fry was treated during her tenure as executive director.
“She was trying to make changes and they wouldn’t let her make the changes she needed to make,” Shealy told me last year. “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.”
As a result of these findings, auditors urged SCDDSN to be established “as a cabinet agency” with a direct line of accountability from the executive director to the governor.
That’s exactly what this outlet recommended several months earlier …
“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,” I wrote last December, referring to SCDDSN and SCDHEC.
SCDDSN received $703.3 million in the state budget which went into effect on July 1, 2023 – including $126.4 million in general fund dollars. That total represented a $12 million increase from the previous year’s spending plan.
AUDIT SUMMARY …
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 (soon to be eight) children.
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