by Ron Barnett, Independent Mail
There’s a new sheriff in town, when it comes to protecting children in South Carolina.
The Legislature this week sent a bill to the governor creating a new Department of Children’s Advocacy.
There’s no additional cost to taxpayers because this will transfer money that has been being used by the Department of Social Services and other state agencies that serve children to investigate complaints about their own agencies.
Nothing against DSS, but having them investigate themselves has always seemed like a conflict of interest to me, especially considering all the shields of secrecy that prevent them from releasing information about children.
And from what I’ve heard, there’s been a lot of frustration from parents, foster parents and guardians about dealing with DSS and other agencies that really have had no accountability for how cases are handled, at least not without going to court.
So this new watchdog agency sounds like a good idea to me.
And there are more positive changes related to foster care coming through legislative action this session.
The governor already has signed into law a bill introduced by Rep. Joshua Putnam of Piedmont that will make it easier for relatives of a child who is being placed in foster care to become foster parents.
Another bill, also sponsored by Putnam, got final approval Wednesday after the House agreed to amendments added by the Senate. It allows agencies to disclose personal health information and other background information about children to their caregivers.
Both of those seem to make good sense. The latter ends the ridiculous policy that DSS has held that said the agency couldn’t tell prospective foster parents if the child they’re considering fostering has a history of abuse, or anything in their background that might help them better understand what issues they may have to deal with.
Dan Bracken of Easley, a member of the state Foster Care Review Board – which will now be placed under the new Department of Children’s Advocacy – has had personal experience with that issue as a foster parent.
“When I found out he was a predator, I said why didn’t you tell me? They said we didn’t think we could because of privacy,” Bracken said.
That’s the kind of thing that turns people against trying to be foster parents, Bracken said.
“People bail, and when they bail they take out 50 potential foster families with them,” he said. “And more importantly, it’s not good for the children.”
Bracken had another foster child who DSS was planning to send back to his mother. The mother was testing positive for drugs. Bracken had to spend $25,000 to take it to court to prevent that.
The new child advocacy department will be “a game changer” for parents and foster parents in dealing with all kinds of issues like that, he said.
“I get calls every day from people in crisis,” he said. “The reason they call me is because there’s no one else to call.”
Knowing that Putnam is a hardline conservative, I wondered how he could support creating a new department in state government – even though the fiscal impact, according to the Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs, is zero.
He said he believes the new department actually will save the state money from having to defend its agencies against numerous lawsuits involving children.
“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,” he said.
“It’s not really growing government as much as it is getting government to work better and more efficiently.”
DSS is sometimes “a nightmare to deal with,” Putnam said. “It’s so large, and you need some accountability.”
DSS didn’t take a position for or against the bill, according to agency spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus.
I suspect they didn’t particularly like the idea of having a new agency looking over their shoulder but didn’t really have a good argument against it.
All these bills taken together could help solve the basic problem, which is a shortage of foster families.
DSS’s Matheus said the state needs 1,500 more families to keep children from having to move to another county or live in a group home.
If you’d like to consider becoming a foster parent, a good place to go for information would be Fostering Great Ideas, https://fgi4kids.org/ or call 864-567-5216.