SC Appleseed Takes Action on Two Fronts to Protect Children

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Copy of Complaint in MICHELLE H. v. HALEY 2015.1.12

(Charleston, S.C.) – Citing dangerous deficiencies in South Carolina’s child welfare system – including a drastic shortage of foster homes, excessive caseloads and a failure to provide children with basic health care – 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., today filed suit against Governor Nikki Haley and Acting State Director of the Department of Social Services (DSS) Susan Alford.

The class action, Michelle H. v. Haley, filed in the Charleston Division of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, seeks reform on behalf of nearly 3,400 abused and neglected children statewide. It charges that as a result of pervasive failures by DSS, “Children have been and continue to be harmed physically, psychologically and emotionally, and continue to be placed at constant risk of such harms while in DSS custody.”

The 11 named plaintiffs, representing all children in state care, range in age from 2 to 17 and collectively have lived in foster homes and institutions across the state, suffering in myriad ways. For example, DSS has moved 16-year-old Michelle H. through at least 12 placements in about 8 years, including abusive foster homes. Michelle wants a family, but instead she is languishing in a restrictive group facility where she is placed in solitary confinement if she misbehaves because, as her caseworker told her, DSS does not have enough foster homes.

“Foster care is supposed to be a safe haven for abused and neglected children, yet South Carolina is re- victimizing the kids it’s supposed to protect,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director for Children’s Rights. “There’s got to be accountability when longstanding systemic problems, like a severe lack of mental health services, gross overreliance on institutions and high caseloads, continue to harm innocent children.”

According to the complaint, child maltreatment in foster care goes uninvestigated, inaccurate data masks a much higher rate of abuse and neglect in care than the state reports to the federal government, and caseworkers are so overburdened that kids suffer unnecessary harms. South Carolina’s own standards call for caseloads of 14 to 20 children, but according to a 2014 report released by the Legislative Audit Council (LAC), 58 percent of workers had caseloads exceeding state standards, 19 percent were assigned more than 50 children, and some were even responsible for more than 75 children. Many of the deficiencies detailed in the suit have been known for decades – highlighted as far back as 1985 by the LAC and as recently as the past year in multiple legislative hearings. The suit alleges that DSS has failed to make needed fixes.

“For the 25 years that I have been advocating on behalf of South Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens, DSS has continuously failed to make changes to ensure kids in foster care are protected and given proper treatment,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Since South Carolina has repeatedly ignored its own admissions about the system, we have no choice but to act and demand reform to protect children.”

The lawsuit also states that DSS does not provide basic medical, dental and mental health evaluations and treatment as explicitly required by law. In addition, it outlines how the severe lack of foster homes causes children to suffer alarming consequences.


Copy of Jasper County School District Class Complaint

Columbia, S.C. – The South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center (SC Appleseed) filed a complaint yesterday against the Jasper County School District (JCSD) for denying students with disabilities access to special education services and subjecting them to repeated suspensions, and other harsh disciplinary treatment.

The complaint, filed with the South Carolina Department of Education, describes how the school district fails to comply with federal law requiring special disciplinary considerations and educational services for students with disabilities. It also outlines how students with disabilities are suspended at an alarmingly higher rate than students without disabilities. Nearly 19 percent of disabled students were suspended out of school once by JCSD compared to only 7.5 percent of students without disabilities given that same punishment.

“Jasper County’s current policies and practices are in clear violation of federal law. As a result, the district is cutting short the futures of countless students with disabilities by denying them access to a quality education,” said Amanda Adler, staff attorney at SC Appleseed. “Jasper County has chosen to handle behavioral issues with suspensions and referrals to law enforcement rather than provide special needs children with the services they need to succeed in the classroom.”

When disciplining a child with a disability, federally funded school districts are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to consider the child’s disability when determining the appropriate disciplinary action. The law also requires school districts to develop individualized education programs for students with disabilities that are tailored to address the specific needs of each child.

The representative complainants are all high school aged male students with documented needs for services under IDEA. One complainant, only two credits from graduation and eligible for professional certification in a trade, was summarily expelled from school and referred to law enforcement. Today, almost one calendar year later, the district has yet to fulfill its federally-required mandates to provide an appropriate education or to providing related services to address behavioral needs. “Because of this violation by the district, this young man now faces almost insurmountable barriers to becoming a productive citizen,” says Adler. “He was on the cusp of a successful life that would have included employment and the likelihood of owning his own business.”

“We are simply asking the Jasper County School District to comply with federal law by providing students with disabilities with the educational services they are entitled to by law,” said Steve Suggs, Deputy Director at SC Appleseed.

The complaint also describes how the school district denies special needs students appropriate psychological and counseling services, positive behavioral support plans, related services, and assistive technology as required by federal law. In some instances, students with disabilities are disciplined without parent notification or proper documentation of the disciplinary action.

The school district’s policies and practices also result in disproportionately high arrest rates of African-American students for school based offenses. Even though African-American students make up 62 percent of the student population in JCSD, African-American students comprised 100 percent of students arrested for school based charges during the 2010-2011 school year.

“School discipline should never deprive a child of an education, but, sadly, that is what happens every day the Jasper County School District continues to push students out of school and into prison rather than provide them with necessary services,” Suggs said.