COLUMBIA — The director of South Carolina’s Department of Social Services said on Wednesday that she wouldn’t step down from the agency, saying she feels she has more work to accomplish.
“If I thought that my resignation would save the life of even one child, the governor would have my resignation,” Director Lillian Koller said. “So I respectfully decline to resign.”
Koller spoke after spending several hours testifying before a Senate subcommittee created to investigate the agency, including over the beating death of a child. One of the panel’s three members, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, has previously called on Gov. Nikki Haley to fire Koller, but the governor has reiterated support for her appointee, including in a statement issued through her spokesman Wednesday.
“Gov. Haley is proud of Director Koller, the staff at DSS, and the changes they have made, changes that have resulted in a decrease in child fatalities, an increase in adoptions, and the ability to provide more services to children and families statewide than ever before,” spokesman Doug Mayer said.
In four meetings over the past few months, the subcommittee has heard testimony from county coroners about their difficulties in investigating child deaths.
Parents have also testified about their problems in adopting children through the agency. One mother whose daughter died at a home day care also called on lawmakers to institute more oversight on such facilities.
During often contentious testimony on Wednesday, Koller told lawmakers that she understands the agency has problems but that she feels things have improved during her years as its director.
“These cases are not cut and dry,” Koller said, referencing the difficulties inherent in child abuse and neglect cases.
Lawmakers had many questions about the handling of the case of Robert Guinyard, a 4-year-old Richland County boy found beaten to death last year. Officials have said potential abuse to Robert or his older siblings was reported to social services more than a dozen times between 2006 and 2013 – seven of those reports about Robert specifically.
His parents have been charged with homicide by child abuse. In the wake of that case, Koller said, eight agency employees retired, resigned or were fired, ranging from case workers to investigators and a county-level supervisor.
Acknowledging that Robert’s case was poorly handled, Koller said she has a plan to regionalize county social services offices in a way that might provide a better network to start cases, a system she hopes to have in place by year’s end.
“The system must do more to prevent lives like Robert’s from being lost,” Koller said. “Asking ourselves what might have happened, if only, is a very important question to ask. And, at the same time, it is a very tough question to answer after tragedy strikes.”
Koller said she has asked for more full time positions to help handle cases around the state, saying employee turnover has recently improved. Lawmakers also discussed the agency’s goals, which Sen. Katrina Shealy said should be secondary to the human nature of its mission.
“I don’t think children should be considered goals,” Shealy, R-Lexington, said. “I think that children are living breathing human beings and are not numbers. ... Sometimes we let the numbers get in our way.”
Koller’s appearance on Wednesday was her first before the panel that has been meeting for several months. Chairman Tom Young, R-Aiken, said the panel would reconvene in several weeks for more testimony from the director.