An amendment to a bill introduced last week would strengthen the requirements for coroners across the state to report the suspicious deaths of children to state law enforcement.
S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, filed S1163 last week, which would allow the state Department of Social Services to release details about suspected child abuse and neglect cases the agency did not investigate, and to report publicly when abuse results in a child dying or nearly dying.
The bill, intended to force all 46 coroners in South Carolina to report the suspicious deaths of children, advanced on Wednesday in the S.C. Senate.
An amendment filed this week will strengthen a current law, which requires county coroners to report unexplained or unexpected deaths of children within 24 hours to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.
“We’ve got some coroners that are not reporting data to the State Law Enforcement Division as it relates to children who die in circumstances that may have involved abuse and neglect,” Young said. “We wanted to make sure there was consistency across the state.”
Young said it’s important for the coroners to report the deaths so that SLED’s child fatality division can do its job in investigating the deaths.
Young has chaired four hearings on issues related to child abuse, neglect and DSS; in two of those hearings, there was testimony that the state didn’t have consistency in coroners reporting suspicious child deaths.
“There were counties that had no data reported for several years,” Young said, adding that Aiken County was not one of those counties.
Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said his office obeys the law and reports suspicious child deaths to SLED.
If any death is considered suspicious in nature, meaning the child wasn’t diagnosed with an illness or disease that would lead to their death, Carlton’s office and local law enforcement investigate. Anyone 17 or younger who dies of anything suspicious or of homicide is autopsied, he said.
“We have a child fatality report that requires us to report that within 24 hours,” he said. “I would guess 90 percent of coroners report those. With any group of individuals, there’s always some folks that don’t want to get with the program.”
Carlton said he believes there may be some other “systemic issues” with the reporting of child deaths, specifically the amount of time it takes SLED to follow up on some cases.
Young noted that this is an amendment to the bill he filed last week and not a stand-alone bill.
He said the bill stemmed from issues that lawmakers were made aware of from the hearings he chaired that mainly had to do with oversight of the department and investigating its activities.
“What we learned in subcommittee hearings, we had members of the public coming to tell stories about cases involving DSS where there were allegations that DSS dropped the ball in addressing situations of child abuse and neglect,” he said. “When we asked DSS to respond, specifically to certain cases, they told us they could not provide specifics in certain cases because state law would not allow them to do that.”
The DSS director is expected to appear before the senate panel on April 16.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard.