South Carolina is set to become the 20th state to establish an autonomous office to hold its child welfare agency accountable.
If Gov. Henry McMaster (R) signs the bipartisan S. 805, the Palmetto State will establish a new Department of Children’s Advocacy using funds transferred from the agency it will monitor, the Department of Social Services (DSS).
“We can save the taxpayers millions of dollars with this office, and most importantly, we give a voice to the children of this state, finally,” said State Rep. Joshua Putnam (R), one of the bill’s sponsors, in an interview with the Independent Mail. “It’s not really growing government as much as it is getting government to work better and more efficiently.”
South Carolina settled a class-action lawsuit in 2016 that focused on the quality of its foster care system. Among the issues cited in the lawsuit:
- A shortage of homes, prompting overreliance on group settings, including juvenile detention centers
- Frequent placement moves within the system
- Excessive caseloads for its social workers
- Placement far away from possible kinship options
According to research done last year by The Imprint for its first annual Foster Care Capacity Report, the state lost 16 percent of its non-relative beds while gaining more than 1,000 foster youth between 2012 and 2017.
Meanwhile, it posted one of the lowest rates of kinship placement of any state. Only 7 percent of South Carolina foster youth lived with relatives licensed to be foster parents in 2008, according to federal data. As relative placements trended upward in much of the country, South Carolina’s percentage dropped to 6 percent in 2015.
DSS has said it needs to recruit an additional 1,500 licensed families to meet its current need for capacity. If each of those homes offered one bed, that increase would amount to a nearly 50 percent increase from the state’s current total (there were 3,221 foster home beds available in 2017).
A separate bill already signed by Gov. McMaster could help make relatives a big part of that increase. Act 146, signed into law on April 4, requires DSS to inform relatives about their eligibility to become licensed foster parents, and speeds that process up for relatives by allowing DSS to waive several licensing standards not related to safety.
There are currently 19 states with some form of autonomous “ombudsman” child welfare offices created by law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. South Carolina would join the group of 11 with an independent office that focuses entirely on child welfare: Colo., Ga., Ind., Maine, Mass., Mich., Mo., R.I., Tenn., and Wash.
Another three states – Calif., Texas and Utah – have autonomous departments housed within their child welfare agencies. And five states – Alaska, Ariz., Hawaii, Iowa and Neb. – have ombudsman’s offices that monitor child-related programs at multiple state agencies.
South Carolina does have a Governor’s Office of Children’s Affairs, which does not have any statutory authority.