Suit seeks to bring change to embattled SC foster-care system

A reliance on group homes – plus an overtaxed caseworker labor force – has jeopardized children’s safety, suit alleges

In South Carolina, only 40 percent of the state’s more than 4,000 children in the care of the Department of Social Services are housed with traditional foster families.
Edel Rodriguez for Al Jazeera America

GREENWOOD, S.C. — The need for change is in the air in Greenwood County. Squeezed between pop songs on a local radio station, a commercial urges families to consider opening their home to a foster child. In this particular town, housing children has lineage. For more than a century, the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home, on a rural highway on the outskirts of town, has sheltered children who have no place to go.

In South Carolina, only 40 percent of the state’s more than 4,000 children currently in the care of the Department of Social Services are housed with traditional foster families, according to agency data. The result, say child advocates, is that the state’s historical dependence on group homes — plus an overtaxed caseworker labor force — has jeopardized safety and led to revictimization of vulnerable children. In January, some of those same advocates filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in federal district court in hopes of forcing reform in South Carolina’s foster-care system.

It’s a legal battle that is expected to bring change. In Greenwood, the Baptist church-run Connie Maxwell residence stands to lose a lot, just by being a group home, acknowledges its president, the Rev. Randy Harling.

“We feel persecuted for the sins of others,” Harling said.

Warehousing children

Stress fractures in South Carolina’s long beleaguered DSS have been showing for years, with Gov. Nikki Haley calling the agency “more challenging than most” in an address earlier this year in which she promised major changes. Haley hired a new director, Susan Alford, in December of last year, and she has wasted no time pressuring state lawmakers to increase budgets to hire new caseworkers.

“Although the figure changes almost daily, the department employs approximately 1,000 human services caseworkers,” DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus wrote in an email.

Earlier this month, the South Carolina Senate approved a budget that would add 177 new DSS caseworkers and raises for current caseworkers in an attempt to help slow a nearly 40 percent yearly churn in turnover.

The changes, while in the right direction, fall short of addressing the systemic problems with the foster-care system, according to Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. The legal center partnered with Children’s Rights, a foster-care-reform advocacy group based in New York, to sue the state on behalf of 11 foster-care children ranging in age from 2 years old to 17.

“We felt the need to bring this lawsuit because the problems that we’ve cited are not new problems,” Berkowitz said. “There have been numerous documentational problems for the last 30 to 35 years at the South Carolina Department of Social Services.”

The plaintiff stories in the lawsuit read like a laundry list of horrors — abuse at the hands of foster families and other children inside group homes; major delays in receiving mental-health care that stretch for months on end; group homes with moldy food, poor sanitation and staffers who make sexual advances; a physically and sexually abused 5-year-old locked away in one institution after another, talking of her desire to commit suicide; housing foster children alongside juvenile delinquents.

The legal group declined to make the young plaintiffs available for interview due to the traumatic nature of their experiences.

“There are so many issues that are going on at one time that it’s definitely breaking the system down,” said Dione Brabham, a field organizer for SC Appleseed. “Collectively, they could be solved a lot quicker with better oversight and management.”

For starters, DSS management is not asking enough questions about the young people’s backgrounds, and kids aren’t getting matched with services they need. Every county is a little bit different and can have its own approach, she explained. A county, for example, might place emphasis on placing children with relatives. “You hear about a lot of kids going into relative placement, but there’s no background check done on that relative, so they get abused and recycled into the system,” Brabham said. In a given county, that scenario could affect 20 kids, she said.

“The biggest issue: There aren’t enough homes for kids to go to,” Brabham said. “Some of them need therapeutic care [for medical or emotional needs that require specialized training], and there aren’t enough therapeutic homes for them.” In those situations, the lack of therapy can lead to the child becoming disruptive, which can lead to their being sent to a group home. “They’re kind of labeled, maybe as a bad kid, but they’re not. The kid just needs a higher level of care than what’s available.”

A child placed with a foster family in Charleston County, for example, was diagnosed with mental illness but was not given his medication, Brabham said. “We don’t know if his foster parents didn’t give it to him, he just didn’t receive it — we’re not quite sure.” When he was symptomatic, however, he would become disruptive, she said. “The way it was perceived was that he was being violent, he was acting out, and that ended up putting him into [Department of Juvenile Justice] placement. That’s a big problem because he’s suffering from an illness and he’s not being properly treated.”

South Carolina has been forced to acknowledge the grim reality of group homes in recent years. In April 2014, the Boys Home of the South, in Belton, was forced to shut down as a result of a lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights after an 11-year-old was sexually abused by an older child and denied psychological treatment.
Edel Rodriguez for Al Jazeera America

South Carolina has plenty of company when it comes to a poor child-welfare track record. In a report issued earlier this year by the University of San Diego School of Law’s Children’s Advocacy Institute, not one state was found to be in “substantial conformity” to the federal laws meant to protect abused children. The report blames the lack of meaningful oversight of state programs by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Congress for not providing legislative teeth for when states fail to measure up and a federal judiciary that often shies away from holding states to compliance mandates. 

“These politically powerless children, hundreds of thousands of them each year, suffer lifelong consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment, homelessness, sex-trafficking victimization and imprisonment, at rates far above any other grouping. It’s a national disgrace,” said CAI’s executive director, Robert Fellmeth, when the report was released.

South Carolina, however, has the distinction of having the highest percentage of foster-care children housed in institutions and group homes of any state, according to 2013 data from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau. Families, a lobbying organization for group homes in the state, declined to comment.

DSS’ system is fundamentally broken and relies on warehousing young kids in institutions and facilities with predictable outcomes, said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights.

“This one fundamental problem — the lack of homes — leads predictably in South Carolina to kids, especially young kids, being unnecessarily institutionalized, which not only harms them but wastes taxpayer money, because these institutions cost many times what it costs to support a child in a family foster home,” due to administrative and facility expenses, Lustbader said. “Then the state and the agency recommend they just stay in jail because there’s nowhere to put them. That’s how bad it is.”

South Carolina has been forced to acknowledge the grim reality of group homes in recent years. In April 2014, the Boys Home of the South, in Belton, was forced to shut down as a result of a lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights after an 11-year-old was sexually abused by an older child and denied psychological treatment.

 The advocacy group is known for its expertise in launching reform campaigns in federal court to change child-welfare systems.

“You’re just allowing kids to deteriorate in state custody when the whole point of, if you’re going to intervene and remove kids and put them in foster care, you’ve got to keep them safe and give them an appropriate place to live,” Lustbader said. “It’s so important to know that these just are some of the most vulnerable citizens in this country,” he said. “The notion that that complete dependency on the state for basic care and protection can be so violated is really outrageous.”

Robert Butcher, an attorney in Camden, was involved in the legal case against the Boys Home. “The biggest problem I see is children being sexually assaulted in foster care. This is child-on-child sexual assault,” Butcher said.

One of Butcher’s current cases, for example, deals with four children who were taken from their parents and placed by DSS with relatives. “They were sexually abused there and they sexually acted out,” he said. They were moved to a new foster family — his clients — who were not told of their background. Then, said Butcher, the unthinkable happened: “[The clients’] two biological children get raped.” Withholding pivotal details about a child’s background is “a huge manipulation” of foster families, who often aren’t aware of mental-illness issues, he added. “A lot of these parents feel like complete failures.”

 “It’s a sick system. What we’re doing with sexually aggressive children is institutionalizing them as kids, and we’re almost guaranteeing that they will create and multiply more sex offenders. And we’re almost guaranteeing that they’ll be back into our system one way or another,” Butcher said.

In many of his cases, he said, the end result stems from a simplistic and avoidable root cause: Caseworkers haven’t read the case files. “So, a child who has sexually acted out, if he gets a new social worker, that social worker will just put him with other kids in his next placement because they haven’t read the file that says he’s sexually acted out on four other boys. It’s extraordinarily frustrating,” he said. “I’ve seen social workers cry about it when I’m deposing them.”

All but three of Butcher’s current cases deal with foster care.

“It is depressing [expletive] work,” Butcher said.

South Carolina’s per diem for basic foster care covers about 49 percent of the estimated expenses for a 9- to 11-year-old child, according to a 2013 Child Trends report on reimbursement rates.

“There are group homes that probably needed to shut down,” concedes Harling, the head of the Connie Maxwell home, in Greenwood. “There are foster families who don’t need to be fostering. They’re not any better than the alternative from where the child came from.”

Group-home regulations “get a little bit more restrictive every year,” which makes them more expensive to operate, according to Harling. Connie Maxwell receives only about 3 percent of its budget from the state, and only about a fourth of its children have been placed by DSS, Harling said. The rest of the children have been placed privately, such as when an aging grandparent has custody but feels he or she can no longer effectively take care of the child.

“We are using more private money now than we are state money,” Harling said. “That’s one reason why we’ve been able to stay fully operational and as effective as we have when there have been some that have declined or really reduce their services or go out of business altogether. Those typically have been, historically, those that were very dependent upon state money.”

“I think that we’ve got this huge problem. I think so much of the solution is here in our state. It has just not been leveraged,” he said. “If just some of our churches decided to take one child in — one family somewhere in that church decided to foster and adopt — we wouldn’t have any children looking for homes.”

Harling has also lived the other side of the coin, having adopted and raised two foster sons. The reality is, there just aren’t enough foster families. For one, it can take upwards of a year for a family to become approved by the state, he said. Then, the daily stipend of less than $15 a day for the foster child presents a potential financial burden. “You’re typically not going to raise those children expecting to break even costwise. And that eliminates a lot of potential foster families.”

South Carolina’s per diem for basic foster care covers about 49 percent of the estimated expenses for a 9- to 11-year-old child, according to a 2013 Child Trends report on reimbursement rates. It is one of the lowest in the nation. The state’s compensation rates for foster children have opened up a business opportunity for group homes, Berkowitz said.

DSS regulations mandate that the agency issue a decision on foster-family applications within 120 days of submission. The reality, however, is an average of six to nine months, Matheus of DSS wrote in an email. There is a business plan in the works that would cut decision processing to a 60- to 90-day window, but “the plan has not yet been implemented,” she said.

“The state is not a good parent. It’s never going to be,” said Harling, who added that his experience is that DSS caseworkers handle about 45 to 50 children. They are required to see each a child in person at least once a month. “In addition to court appearances and family visits, paperwork, meetings and training, and all the other stuff you have to do, it is physically impossible for you to visit 45 kids in a 30-day month when you only have 20 working days,” Harling said. “It does not happen.”

And while Harling agrees that foster homes are preferable, he said a group home like Connie Maxwell should be considered a viable option. The 120-acre campus is dotted with nine cottages in a neighborhoodlike village that surrounds a church. Each cottage, overseen by an adult who monitors chores, homework and behavior, houses about eight children grouped by age and gender. In the afternoons, after a school bus drops them off, kids ride bikes through the tree-lined streets or work jobs around the campus for pocket money. It’s been years since a child ran away, he added.

“That’s what angers me about the Children’s Rights [case],” Harling said. “It’s almost like ‘We’re taking a template from every state we’ve ever sued and we’re transposing that on you and this is in your best interest.’ Are you eliminating part of the segment that actually can be part of the solution for trying to bring reform into the state?”

According to Children’s Rights, it is reform across the board that is needed in South Carolina.

“The big picture there is, sometimes, when problems are extreme and dangerous and unaddressed, it takes a federal lawsuit to vindicate the rights of vulnerable people. That’s exactly what this case is all about,” Lustbader said. “When it comes to bringing a federal lawsuit to force reforms, it’s because these are not optional aspects of a child-welfare system.”

He continued: “It’s our hope and desire that this case will bring the specific improvement and accountability that has been lacking for so many years in the DSS system in South Carolina.”

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