COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The director of the state's Social Services Department was grilled by a Senate subcommittee seeking answers for parents and child advocates who say the agency is mishandling child welfare cases.
Director Lillian Koller addressed the Senate DSS Oversight Subcommittee for the first time to defend herself and the agency from allegations that the agency is putting too much emphasis on goals and numbers above children.
A smiling and confident Koller was placed under oath and wasted no time defending her role as director.
"Many people who have become so upset with me and DSS over the past year were actually enflamed by a misrepresentation of the facts," said Koller.
But there was little agreement between senators and Koller over those facts -- chief among them was how many cases each case worker is assigned.
"Fifty, sixty, seventy cases per worker," said one senator. "This is not the first time we've heard that."
Koller says the average case load is six, she also testified the agency has recently hired 50 full-time employees. But senators say the problem goes deeper.
"I think when you hear it once, maybe you dismiss it a little bit, but when you hear it 20, 30 times, it's a system wide problem," said state Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland).
"I have about 45 letters here from current employees across the state, "I request that you do not provide this letter to Koller and her administration because I fear backlash,'" said state Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington).
Senators also took issue with Koller's claims that the agency has reduced deaths of children in DSS care by 25 percent since 2009.
"Help us understand why this report shows 67 in 2011, and 67 in 2013? I think it's a misrepresentation when you say 25 percent and you can't show us that," said Lourie.
"It is impossible to legitimately claim that child deaths with DSS involvement have been recently spiking," said Koller.
Senators also specifically asked questions about a Richland County case where a 4-year-old child was killed despite multiple reports to DSS about alleged abuse.
The child, Robert Guinyard, Jr., was allegedly beaten by his parents with a curtain rod because the boy failed to control his bodily functions.
Koller is fighting back against calls from both Democrats and Republicans to resign from her post. She dismissed those calls.
"If I thought that my resignation would save the life of one child, the governor would have my resignation," said Koller.
The director says her agency is working towards improvement, but some senators say it's too little, too late.
"I think there's a tremendous void in leadership, I really do," said Lourie. "I leave here today more convinced than I was two weeks ago that we have the wrong person running the agency."
"I think our record is demonstratively one of improvement in child safety, well-being, and permanency," said Koller.
Koller had been unable to testify until Wednesday due to a health issue.
Gov. Nikki Haley continues to stand behind Koller, saying in a statement that she is proud of Koller, DSS, and the changes they have made.
"Director Koller showed today exactly why the governor appointed her in the first place – she is a committed advocate for South Carolina's children, and someone who has overseen dramatic improvement in an agency that deals with some of the toughest, most tragic situations in our state," said the statement.
Koller also talked about the pending lawsuits against her, and these aren't the first legal issues she's dealt with.
"I am well aware of the lawsuits that have been brought against DSS and myself and I do not believe that they will be successful in being able to establish any of those allegations as truthful," Koller said.
The most recent was resolved in August of 2013, while Koller was the director of the Department of Human Services in Hawaii.
A judge found the Department of Human Services showed neglect in the death of a 14-month-old child.
That lawsuit was filed by the child's maternal grandmother.
She claimed an open case with the Child Welfare Services should have prevented her grandson from being placed back in the care of his father.
The father was convicted of murder after he shook his son to death in September 2009.
The judge ordered DHS and the child's father to each pay half of a $250,000 judgment.
Another lawsuit was filed in 2010.
It claimed Koller intentionally and persistently failed to process applications for Hawaii's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--known as SNAP.
The plaintiff says this resulted in thousands of households being denied assistance to feed their families.
That case was transferred to the new director's name once Koller left in 2011 to take her job in South Carolina and settled last year.
In a third lawsuit in 2005 a couple claims their children were removed from a pre-kindergarten program without their knowledge and later taken from them.
A sealed settlement with that couple was reached in January.
The subcommittee plans to meet with Koller again in a few weeks for further testimony.