South Carolina’s child welfare system is struggling to meet its goals under a class-action lawsuit settlement brought by Children’s Rights, a nonprofit litigator based in New York City. Tennessee recently exited such a settlement with the same organization after a nearly two-decade roller coaster ride.
It appears the former will attempt to learn directly from the latter. Last week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) announced that he has tapped a senior Tennessee child welfare official to take over his state’s Department of Social Services (DSS).
Mike Leach, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, will lead an agency presiding over troubling trends in the state, as the number of children entering foster care continues to rise.
“This is a very important day,” said McMaster, at an event introducing Leach. “It is clear that transformative leadership is required in South Carolina to resolve the daunting and frustrating issues that the Department of Social Services faces.”
Leach was only recently named deputy director in Tennessee, in May of 2018, and spent the decade before that climbing the agency’s ladder. He started in 2008 as a program director for systems integration, where he ran point on the initiatives specifically related to Tennessee’s class-action settlement in the Brian A case. Leach then became director of the state’s independent living program, and more recently led its performance and quality improvement division.
This year, Tennessee successfully exited the Brian A settlement, 19 years after Children’s Rights took the state to court. The lawsuit stemmed from struggles with high worker caseloads, and a lack of foster home options that led to overuse of emergency shelters.
Those problems are also at the heart of Michelle H., the lawsuit against South Carolina DSS that brought the system under a settlement in 2016. Under the agreement, DSS agreed to address staggering caseloads, improve its maltreatment investigation practice, and reduce the number of young children placed into group homes and other “congregate care” settings.
But DSS’ struggle with workforce issues has remained. According to recent reporting by The State, a local news site, nearly 1,000 full-time positions are unfilled at an agency with about 4,000 employees. Last November, frustrated with the pace of reform, Children’s Rights filed a contempt motion.
The situation worsened in early 2019 when legislative budget leadership, angered over DSS’ inability to answer certain questions, refused to include funds related to the settlement in the state’s $9 billion budget.
Aside from the lawsuit, the state’s foster care capacity trends are alarming. The number of youth in foster care is up 47 percent since 2012, according to federal and state data collected for The Imprint’s “Who Cares” project. At the same time, the number of foster homes in the state has declined, and the number of youth living in congregate care has nearly doubled.
While the “Who Cares” project identified a massive shift toward relying on relatives in many states, the percentage of South Carolina foster youth placed with relatives has declined by 45 percent since 2012.
Leaders at Children’s Rights gave Leach high marks as a candidate to inherit these problems.
“Michael Leach has a clear passion for serving kids and families and is committed to making the system better,” said Litigation Director Ira Lustbader, who serves as co-counsel on both settlements. “We look forward to having [him] in South Carolina and working to get a sufficient number of caseworkers and family placements and for basic health care needs of this vulnerable group of our children.”
DSS’ former director, Susan Alford, retired in July 2018. Joan Meacham will remain as interim director until Leach is confirmed by the State Senate.