DSS settles lawsuit over caseloads, foster care

COLUMBIA, SC – The SC Department of Social Services (DSS) has settled a class action lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights and SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

Those organizations claimed there were chronic problems in the the foster care system including shortages of foster homes, excessive caseloads and a failure to provide basic and necessary health care to kids.

DSS says they have a comprehensive strategic plan to improve child welfare including:

Increased caseworker staff.
Reducing caseload.
Redesigned foster care licensing system to reduce time to license families.
Launched a foster care recruiting campaign

You can read both organizations press releases below:

It’s Settled. Today, along with our partners Children’s Rights and Matthew T. Richardson, a partner at Wyche P.A., we are happy to announce we have reached a settlement in our class action case Michelle H. v. Haley.
The case, filed in January 2015 on behalf of nearly 3,400 abused and neglected children in the care of the Department of Social Services (DSS), was the result of chronic problems in the foster care system, including a drastic shortage of foster homes, excessive caseloads and a failure to provide basic and necessary health care to kids.
To this end, the settlement promises vital changes, such as:
• Ensuring reasonable caseloads
• Improving safety oversight
• Placing fewer young kids in institutions
• Revamping health care delivery
• Appointment of independent monitors
We believe, in the words of our co-counsel Matthew T. Richardson, “This is the best path to ensure essential changes take hold rapidly and our children receive the care they deserve.”
We also want to echo Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights, who said, “We commend Governor Haley and her administration for recognizing the need for change and doing the right thing for kids. The fact that state leaders came to the table early, wanting to find ways to improve the treatment of young people in foster care, stands to be life-changing for these children.”

The proposed settlement requires the approval of U.S. District Judge Richard M Gergel, in Charleston. In a joint request also filed today, both sides asked Judge Gergel to grant preliminary approval of the settlement.

Finally, we want to thank You. Without your support, SC Appleseed would not have been able to take this case, and these 3,400 children in foster care would continue to be subject to the many deficienes this case has highlighted and addressed within the system.
We may not know what legal action we’ll need to take on next, but we do know that we’ll need your support to meet the next challenge head-on.

SC DSS RELEASE

Columbia, SC – June 3, 2016- Since 2015, under new leadership and a comprehensive strategic plan, the Department of Social Services (DSS) has been committed to sustainable reform of its policies and practices in order to improve the quality of child welfare in the state of South Carolina. Today, DSS took the next step in this reform by signing a settlement agreement to resolve a class action lawsuit filed against it in January 2015 by Children’s Rights and South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. Coming to the table quickly and ultimately entering into the settlement agreement avoided prolonged, expensive litigation and allows DSS to continue to focus on implementing reforms that will improve the quality of care for children in foster care in South Carolina.

DSS has already begun to address caseloads of frontline staff. The fewer cases assigned, the more time and attention a caseworker can devote to meeting the needs and ensuring the safety of each child. The Department established appropriate caseload standards for caseworkers and then requested and received 177 caseworker and 67 caseworker assistant positions last fiscal year to reduce workloads. As a result of the increased staff and internal reforms, the Department has reduced the number of caseworkers with 50 or more children by almost 50% between January 2015 and March 2016. Simultaneously, the Department decreased the turnover rate of caseworkers from 39.1% in 2014 to 27% in 2015. The Department requested additional caseworkers for fiscal year 2017 to further reduce caseloads. The settlement agreement builds on the momentum and reforms implemented by DSS.

The Department also recognized the need for reform of foster care systems. Best child welfare practice dictates that each child in foster care be placed in the most appropriate family-like, least restrictive setting. Over the last year, DSS redesigned its foster care licensing system to increase efficiencies and reduced the time it takes to license foster families by an average of eight months. With a more efficient system in place, the Department and Governor Nikki Haley, launched a foster care recruitment campaign in 2016, with the goal of recruiting 1500 more foster homes across the state to provide a stable family for the children in our care. In the settlement agreement, DSS has agreed to push forward with this recruitment campaign until it has sufficient foster homes across the state to meet the needs of its foster children.

The efforts of the Department have already led to measurable successes in child welfare, but despite these successes, DSS’s work is not done. As promised in the settlement agreement, DSS will continue to reform the agency, meet federal standards of care, and improve the welfare of children in our state.

Susan Alford, State Director of the SC Department of Social Services, recognizes these reforms cannot be accomplished alone. Community partnerships and support from the legislature, child advocates, the family court, law enforcement, public health, private providers, the faith based community, and childrens’ services agencies are essential to accomplishing the remaining reforms. “To effect sustainable child welfare reform, we have to create strong partnerships, while being laser-focused on the improvements that will make the most difference for children and families. DSS cannot do this work alone, but we must steer the course…realigning systems to achieve desired outcomes, reviewing data to track progress, and continuously improving services to children and families. We will not reach these outcomes overnight; but our goal is to establish a strong foundation which builds a continuum of services for children that will be sustainable.”

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