By: Nickelle Smith
SPARTANBURG, SC (WSPA) – A new independent state department will now be investigating incidents involving children served by several other South Carolina agencies, including the Department of Social Services.
“Every child in South Carolina deserves to have a happy, nurturing family and I hope this new department sets a bold vision to achieve that,” said Village Legal Hub Attorney Suzy Cole who now works with charities and family court cases involving children.
Previously, she spent years helping physically and sexually abused children in Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union Counties.
“When those cases go through the department of social services they refer the children to the Children’s Advocacy Center for therapy,” Cole said. “When I was at the advocacy center I would hear from a lot of family members who were struggling to understand what was happening with their children’s cases in family court and with the department of social services but may not be able to hire an attorney to help them.”
She hopes the newly launched SC Department of Children’s Advocacy can help.
“Many of the people we hear from are foster parents who have concerns and want to make sure they have been heard,” Cole said.
The SC Department of Children’s Advocacy launched Monday allowing people to submit complaints about the services being provided to a child by a state agency.
United Way of the Piedmont President/CEO Paige Stephenson advocated for the new department before legislators approved it last year.
“There might be multiple departments that are interacting with that child and each department had their own plan. We felt like there needed to be that central organization,” Stephenson said. “One piece of it was that it was not adding any additional cost in the budget.”
She said United Way of the Piedmont works with families who have children in the state’s care.
“Because we’re working in the areas of education, financial stability and health, children are a common denominator,” she said. “[We are] Wanting to make sure that those children who are vulnerable, as we were seeing things happen, we wanted to make sure their best interest was always kept at heart.”
The department will look to make sure children get adequate protection and from services or programs offered for children by the following state entities:
- Department of Social Services
- Department of Mental Health
- Department of Juvenile Justice
- Department of Health and Environmental Control
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Department of Disabilities and Special Needs
- John de la Howe School
- School for the Deaf and the Blind
- Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School
“If you look at what’s been going on with the department of social services you know there have been challenges and they’re working hard to address those but having another set of eyes looking at the problem through a different lense can only make things better,” Cole said.
The new department that can also independently investigate incidents involving a state agency, even if that agency already looked into the case.
“One of the reasons that a child is going to be in the care of the state is because there’s already been a disruption in their life so we want to make sure that being in the system doesn’t add to the trauma,” Stephenson said. “The interactions that children and their families will be having with these different departments should be much smoother. If there are issues those issues should be able to be resolved much more quickly.”
SC DSS State Director Michael Leach released this statement to 7 News:
“The SC Department of Children’s Advocacy is established to provide additional professional and caring oversight to ensure all agencies are working well on behalf of the children of SC. As the first State Child Advocate, Amanda Whittle is a true champion for children and we at DSS look forward to partnering alongside her and using our combined wisdom, experience, and best practice guidelines to ensure the children and families of South Carolina are safe, healthy, and strengthened.”
The new department is being led by Director and State Child Advocate Amanda F. Whittle, who previously worked as an Assistant General Counsel for the SC DSS, a family court practitioner, and the attorney for the volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program.
“I am grateful to Governor Henry McMaster, the South Carolina Senate, and the Joint Citizens & Legislative Committee on Children for the opportunity to serve as our state’s first State Child Advocate,” said Whittle in a statement. “I am thankful and humbled by the confidence and encouragement they have conveyed and am committed to being focused and intentional regarding advocacy, accountability and service for children.”
The public is able to submit complaints by calling the toll-free line (1-800-206-1957) between 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. or electronically 24/7 by visiting childadvocate.sc.gov and clicking Submit Complaint.
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