South Carolina Laws Hide Child Abuse Inside Group Homes
By Lauren Sausser
Funding foster families
The federal lawsuit hinges on the widely-accepted premise that social services caseworkers in South Carolina are overwhelmed with work. They don’t have time to keep track of all the children that they’re charged to protect.
A Legislative Audit Council report published last year shows more than 30 percent of caseworkers statewide were each assigned at least 50 children to monitor, and a few were assigned more than 75. The Child Welfare League of America, a national advocacy group, recommends each caseworker manage no more than 17 families per month.
The Legislative Audit Council report and a string of child deaths prompted Statehouse hearings and calls to reform the child welfare agency. Former DSS Director Lillian Koller, who tried to scale back the number of foster children in group homes, resigned under pressure last year.
Still, the General Assembly has failed to pass any sort of major legislation to reform the Department of Social Services.
“It’s not something that legislators get excited about because there’s no glory in this,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of the Senate DSS Oversight Committee.
“I know that everybody wants to talk about roads and jobs, and we do need to talk about those things and those are important, but if we don’t save our children, we don’t need our roads.”
Appleseed Legal Justice Center Director Sue Berkowitz said the Legislature needs to broaden its probe into the state agency because child deaths aren’t the only problem it faces.
“There’s so much more going on,” she said. “What hasn’t been focused on is what’s happening to our kids once they go into the system.”
Data provided by the Department of Social Services shows about a quarter of the 4,000 foster children in South Carolina lived in a group home, an emergency shelter or an institution on April 1. Experts, including the Department of Social Services director, say that’s too many.
“The goal in child welfare is for you, as much as possible, to keep kids in families,” Alford said. “If you can’t keep them with their biological family or put them in kinship care, then you’re looking at foster care as the next best alternative. That should be your first priority.”
A national report published by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation this year said group homes aren’t designed to offer the “individualized nurturing” that children need.
“In many cases, a child ends up living in a group placement simply because an agency has not found an appropriate facility,” the report’s authors wrote.
On May 1, 2, 310 foster homes were licensed to accept children in South Carolina — too few for the nearly 4,000 children in the system. But the child welfare agency can’t recruit enough families, partly because they’re paid so little to participate. Foster parents only make between $12.77 and $17.27 per child per night — no more than $6,303 a year to clothe, feed and care for a child.
In response to a public records request filed by The Post and Courier, the Department of Social Services said it spent $28.1 million in the 2014 fiscal year to house children in group homes and institutions, but only $5.5 million on foster families.
Critics argue it makes no sense that the state spends more than five times the amount of money to house less than a quarter of all foster children in group homes because many of them shouldn’t be there in the first place.
“It’s bad for kids, but it’s also a total waste of taxpayer money,” said Lustbader, of New York’s Children’s Rights. “That’s the part that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.”
Some group facilities for children earn additional income from other agencies. The state Medicaid agency, for example, spent $23 million during the 2015 fiscal year on South Carolina children in psychiatric residential treatment facilities, which offer the highest level of care.
Most “Level 3” group homes — a step down from residential treatment facilities — pull in $151 per child per night, or more than $50,000 per child per year. “Level 1” and “Level 2” group homes largely accept children without any psychological problems and earn either $86 or $98 per child per night.
Meanwhile, a 2012 national report shows only five states paid foster families lower rates than South Carolina. Even some group-home advocates acknowledge these foster family payments aren’t sufficient.
“It’s less than you would pay to board your dog,” said Deborah McKelvey, the executive director of Windwood Farm, a combined “Level 3” group home and psychiatric residential treatment facility for boys in Awendaw.
South Carolina needs more foster families, she argued, but some group homes offer children a measure of security that a traditional family can’t provide.
“I know the national picture says children under 12 shouldn’t live in a group setting,” she said. “I say children under 12 frequently are too afraid to bond with a family. They feel safer in a group setting where they know somebody is awake 24 hours a day watching their back.”
Children eat family-style meals together at Windwood Farm, she said. They go to the beach. Windwood almost resembles summer camp, complete with an obstacle course, ponds for swimming and fishing, and a fitness trail, she said.
Jody Tamsberg, chairman of the Windwood Farm board of directors, said that even though South Carolina agencies pay Windwood significantly more than foster families to care for children in state custody, those payments don’t cover its bills. The nonprofit group home still must raise at least $500,000 a year to break even, he said.
“I love good foster families and there are lots of them, but even the good ones, they can’t take a kid that’s been abused, that’s on eight medications, that’s totally out of control,” Tamsberg said. “There’s got to be a place where they can come, stabilize, be safe and have skilled professionals — nurses and doctors — tend to them.”