Settlement reached in DSS class action lawsuit concerning foster care system

Settlement reached in DSS class action lawsuit concerning foster care system

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The S.C. Department of Social Services is continuing to transform a negative caseload and foster care perspective surrounding the agency by signing a settlement in a class action lawsuit filed in January 2015.

The lawsuit was filed by advocacy organization Children's Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Matthew T. Richardson, who is a partner at the Wyche P.A. law firm claiming a shortage in foster care homes dating back three decades. The lawsuit stated because of this shortage, DSS was forced to place vulnerable, often abused children in group homes and institutions. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are each in the DSS foster care system and claim they rely on the care of the defendants, who are Gov. Nikki Haley and then-acting DSS Director Susan Alford.

Alford was named DSS' director shortly after the class action lawsuit was filed. In a statement released by DSS on Friday, the agency claims its "new leadership and a comprehensive strategic plan" has allowed the agency to better itself in the quality of child welfare. By settling, the agency avoided the litigation cost and allowed it to focus on its continuing efforts to better the child welfare system in the state.

"We commend Gov. Haley and her administration for recognizing the need for change and doing the right thing for kids," said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children's Rights. "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 ultimate purpose of the settlement is to seek improvements for 3,400 children in the state's foster care program. The settlement promises vital changes, such as making sure DSS caseworkers have a reasonable caseload by implementing new caseload standards; improving safety oversight by requiring improvement in face-to-face visits; lowering the number of children 12 and younger placed in foster care institutions; and revamp healthcare for children in state custody.

"We became partners in this suit because it was clear that legal advocacy could improve the safety and protection of vulnerable children in foster care," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "I am so relieved that they will have the promise of a brighter future."

During mediation, all parties also agreed to end allowing children in state custody to stay overnight at hotels and DSS offices, and recommending foster children stay at juvenile detention facilities after they have completed a sentence. These prior actions were a result of a lack of housing for the children in state custody.

In the last year, DSS assigned fewer cases to its staff to help ensure the needs and safety of each child are met, according to a statement released by the Department. The Department 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 reduced the number of caseworkers with 50 or more children by almost 50 percent between January 2015 and March 2016. Simultaneously, the Department decreased the turnover rate of caseworkers from 39.1 percent in 2014 to 27 percent in 2015. The Department also asked for more caseworkers for fiscal year 2017 to further reduce caseloads.

In addition, the Department and Haley launched a foster care recruitment campaign recently with the goal of recruiting 1,500 more foster homes across the state.

"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," Alford said. "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."

The proposed settlement appoints two national child welfare experts as independent co-monitors. They will issue periodic, public reports on the state's progress in meeting the benchmarks outlined in the settlement. If approved, the agreement will stay in place until the state meets and then sustains each obligation for a year.

The proposed settlement requires the approval of U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel in Charleston. In a joint request also filed Friday, both parties asked Judge Gergel to grant preliminary approval of the settlement, provide notice and publication of its terms, and set a date for a final fairness hearing.

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