(Charleston, S.C.) — South Carolina officials and attorneys for plaintiff children advocating for foster care reform agreed to a plan that will require targeted changes to a system that for years has been troubled by a drastic shortage of foster homes, excessive caseworker caseloads and a failure to provide basic health care to kids.
The settlement, filed in federal court today, is the result of the class action Michelle H. v. Haley, which seeks improvements on behalf of nearly 3,400 abused and neglected children statewide. The suit was filed in January 2015 by national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Matthew T. Richardson, partner at the South Carolina law firm Wyche P.A.
These attorneys gave credit to Governor Nikki Haley and State Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) Susan Alford for entering negotiations quickly and resolving to fix areas of its foster care system.
“We commend Governor 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 proposed settlement requires the approval of U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel, in Charleston. In a joint request also filed today, both sides 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.
The settlement promises vital changes such as:
Ensuring reasonable caseloads. The settlement requires new caseload standards and implementation. Public data and reports continue to show workers are overburdened with caseloads, often over three or four times national standards and the state’s own benchmarks, with many workers being responsible for over 50 kids.
Improving safety oversight. The settlement requires measurable improvements in monthly face-to-face visits between caseworkers and children as well as the screening and investigation of reports of maltreatment of kids in care.
Placing fewer young kids in institutions. The settlement requires measurable reductions in the use of non-family housing for kids. When the lawsuit was filed, South Carolina placed a higher percentage of children age 12 and under in group facilities than any other state.
Revamping health care delivery. The settlement addresses longstanding health care issues, including initial corrective actions to address children overdue for check-ups and treatment, and measurable improvements in medical, dental and mental health screening and treatment for all children in care going forward.
“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.”
The parties reached the agreement following a year of negotiations, under the direction of Senior U.S. District Judge P. Michael Duffy, who served as mediator. While talks continued, last September the parties agreed to court-ordered interim relief. The relief focused on ending practices such as: allowing children in state custody to stay overnight in hotels and DSS offices; placing kids age 6 and under in group facilities; and recommending that foster kids remain in juvenile detention facilities even though they have completed their sentence or plea, because there are no places to house them in state care.
The proposed settlement appoints two national child welfare experts as independent co-monitors, Paul Vincent of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group and Judith Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. 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.
“This is the best path to ensure essential changes take hold rapidly and our children receive the care they deserve,” said Matthew T. Richardson, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and partner at the South Carolina law firm Wyche P.A. “The highest calling for an attorney is to help lift up those who need it and level the field of justice, and I’m proud to be a part of this effort.”