Come for the Facebook spat, stay for the child welfare story

Yes, there was a social media dustup between SC politicians last week. There's also a real story here that local media have been on since last fall

CHARLESTON, SC — Late last week, a Facebook spat between South Carolina’s Republican governor and an oft-supportive GOP state senator broke out into the national media. It’s pretty easy to see why: the flame war was over whether the senator was spreading rumors about the governor’s embattled Social Services director possibly being an atheist. The senator said she was not spreading rumors. But female Republicans + fighting on Facebook + a Southern, evangelical red state + potential ungodliness = web traffic.

Consider this Slate headline on the dustup: “South Carolina Government Freaks Out About Rumor That State Official is an Atheist (Or Maybe Just Jewish).” That came after local South Carolina newspapers and TV stations reported on the Facebook feud, and Buzzfeed amplified it for a national audience with a breakdown featuring half a dozen screen grabs.

But, now that a Facebook fight has—sort of—turned the attention of non-South Carolina media toward South Carolina’s head of social services, maybe an out-of-state news outlet will take a closer look at the high-stakes child welfare story here. It’s a story that can’t be told through screen grabs. But there’s enough solid in-state reporting to date to get any newcomer quickly up to speed. And the issues and policy decisions at play aren’t entirely unique to this state.

Some background: Since the fall, print and broadcast media in South Carolina have been reporting on problems at the Department of Social Services after child advocates began leveling serious allegations that Gov. Nikki Haley’s cabinet agency is putting children at risk. The claims stem from complaints that the agency suffers from high caseloads and a purported internal policy goal of drastically reducing them, which has led to mishandled cases that might have resulted in preventable chid deaths. Democratic senators have called on the agency’s director, Lillian Koller, to resign. She says she won’t, and Gov. Haley has consistently stood by her appointee.

Porter Barron Jr, a reporter for the Columbia-based alt-weekly Free Times has reported more on the issue than perhaps anyone else in the state. Back in October, he penned a cover story titled “In Harm’s Way” that should be required reading for anyone looking to get up to speed on the problems plaguing this state agency. The lede details the deaths of three children, all from within a single county, and all in a single summer:

Fifteen-month-old Jayon Wilson Turnipseed was taking a bath with two other children on May 18 when his father’s girlfriend allegedly slammed his face into the tub’s spigot, killing him.

An unnamed, autistic 4-year-old was taking a beating from his father, allegedly, on July 1 when his mother returned home. She didn’t intervene, according to WLTX; instead, she took a shower. She later told Richland County deputies that she could hear the finishing thud from the bathroom.

Seven-week-old Tyler Jamar Miller was unresponsive when he arrived at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital on Aug. 2, where his 22-year-old father had taken him after allegedly inflicting lethal “blunt force trauma” to the infant’s upper body.

In each case, Barron wrote, the country coroner said the family had been reported to DSS’s Child Protective Services prior to the children’s deaths, but the kids had still been left in danger. (Disclosure: I worked at Free Times for three years prior to Barron’s employment, we’re friends, and I shared a table with him during a recent state press association banquet where he accepted an award for “In Harm’s Way.”)

A legislative panel investigating child deaths in South Carolina recently heard testimony from DSS director Koller, but it left some senators and child advocates with more questions than answers. Her testimony was the first time in months the director publicly faced critics after questions about her agency arose in October. She hadn’t been able to testify earlier, she said, because of a stroke she suffered over the holiday season.

Writing earlier this month in The State newspaper, associate editor Cindi Scoppe pointed out in a column that the death of a child in 1991 led DSS to implement serious reforms. But, she wrote, DSS’s culpability in that death was “exponentially more clear-cut” than in any of the child deaths that have stoked this more recent round of agency criticism.

More from Scoppe:

But that does not mean all is well at the state agency charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect. When coroners testify that the agency has looked the other way and as a result children have died, that demands our attention.

I reached out to Katrina Shealy, a longtime children’s advocate who sits on the legislative panel investigating DSS and is the Republican senator whose Facebook fight drew so much recent attention. I wondered what she thought any interested national media might look into— beyond her Facebook profile.

“I’d like them to look at the number of child deaths in South Carolina while children are under the Department of Social Services’ watch,” she said. “I would like them to look at the time it takes for Social Services to respond to a case.”

At least one national media outlet might already being doing that. Shealy and others said staffers from a well-known national nightly news program have been in the state for weeks conducting interviews.

Laura Hudson, director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council and a member of the state’s Child Safety Advisory Committee, says she did some interviews with that national news outlet last week.

“I hope it goes beyond the politics,” she said of any national news segment that might come out of it, echoing something I’ve heard from other child advocates watching the drama unfold here. Governor Haley is in a bitter re-match with a Democratic state senator who, along with the state Democratic Party and Democratic Governors Association, has been advancing a message that Haley is inept at handling her cabinet agencies, like DSS.

“To me, it’s a question of what are we doing for children and what can we do to improve our situation rather than finding fault and pointing fingers,” Hudson says.

Inside South Carolina, broadcasters and newspapers have been looking into those complex, troubling questions beyond a click-baity feud on Facebook. Anyone else?

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at Tags: , , , , , , ,