Post & Courier: Mothers, former staffers call for Department of Social Services reforms

Post & CourierCOLUMBIA – Tearful pleas from two mothers – one who lost an infant daughter and another who adopted a child in foster care – led to a lawmaker’s continued calls on Wednesday for the head of the Department of Social Services to step down.

The DSS General Oversight Committee met once again this week to continue listening to testimony from parents and child welfare officials about their experiences with the agency. Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, reiterated afterward he’d like to see DSS Director Lillian Koller resign.

During the meeting, the panel heard cries for reform at the agency from Winton Swanson, a Greenville resident who adopted a teenaged boy from DSS in 2012. Kathryn Martin – mother of a 3-month-old girl who died at an illegal Greenville in-home day care center of suffocation – also made a tearful plea for workers to perform more inspections at facilities.

The panel also heard from yet another county coroner – this time Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock – and two former DSS staffers with concerns about the agency. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten addressed the committee last week.

“We just keep hearing the ripple effect of the problem DSS has spread through every county in South Carolina,” Lourie said. “This is a serious problem. We’re going to keep pushing until reforms are made.”

During the hearing, Swanson told lawmakers DSS did not prepare her family for the “issues” the teenaged boy they adopted brought into the family’s home, and that staffers only tell potential families what they want to hear.

“The emotional stresses and anxiety that I have experienced has been very crippling at times,” Swanson told the panel. “This has been a game-changer for our family and it has just torn us apart.”

Swanson said the teenager told his case worker he did not want to be adopted, but agency staffers continually told the Swansons “things would get better.” She added that every time the family raised a concern to DSS, “it was dismissed.”

Since Swanson adopted the boy in 2012, he has shoplifted, stolen items from the family and abused the family’s dogs, among other incidents, she said. She added the boy is going back in April to the group home he lived at for five years before he was adopted and that he’s happy about it.

“My heart will always open to him,” Swanson said. “Even if he’s not living with us I will love him from a different address.”

After the hearing, Jessica Hanak-Coulter, a DSS deputy director, said she had no specifics on the Swanson case but said the agency does ongoing assessments during the adoption process.

Since February 2011, Hanak-Coulter said only four of the agency’s 1,855 adoptions have been reversed.

“Our children have been through a lot … so the desire to get them a forever family is what we need,” she said. “We do not rush into those decisions, ever.”

Lourie later highlighted Swanson’s story while on the Senate’s floor.

“They have rushed so much to put kids into adoption that they’ve ruined families in South Carolina,” he said. Lourie added he was looking forward to speaking with Koller, after learning she will come before the committee on April 16.

Koller has been on medical leave since December, but has participated in at least one official function, where she was interviewed by The Post and Courier. Under doctor’s orders, Koller has to “moderate” her activities until she is released to full duty, Marilyn Matheus, DSS spokeswoman, said in a previous interview. Koller is working on lowering and stabilizing her blood pressure as she recovers from a stroke.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, encouraged Lourie to not wait the two weeks, and instead order Koller appear before the committee within the next two days through a subpoena, a suggestion Lourie said he would take under consideration.

“I don’t think we can wait another two weeks,” Kimpson said. “We’re talking about children who have been abused and allegedly died because of the lax oversight.”

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