On September 3, 2014 the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) was told by the Court of Appeals (SCDSS v Hogan) that they must follow the law. Believe it or not, DSS actually argued to the Court of Appeals that they had the power to permanently remove children from their parents without any finding by the Family Court that the children had been abused or neglected.
The court of appeals found the argument presented by DSS to be “troubling”. I find it to be one more reason that this organization is due for a complete “top to bottom” restructuring.
The court stated that:
We take this opportunity to address a practice in Charleston County removal actions we find troubling… (DSS believes that it) does not need to seek a finding of abuse or neglect in a removal action… We find this practice is in clear contravention of the removal statutes and could violate the fundamental right parents have to raise their children.
For those of us who have had the misfortune of dealing with DSS, we generally believe that they have too much power to remove children from their parents and that there is not enough judicial oversight. In my opinion, DSS is arrogant and believes that they are never wrong. They have a pattern of manipulating and threatening people, who are often poor, uneducated, and unable to retain an attorney, into entering into agreements called “safety plans”.
DSS will then use those “agreements” like a club to force a family to conform to a DSS caseworker’s particular notion of morality before DSS will leave them alone. Should the family later decide that the terms of the safety plan are unwarranted, the threat that their children will be removed from them and placed in foster care will usually force compliance, regardless of whether or not allegations of harm a threat of harm have been made against them.
As Hogan demonstrates, DSS believes that it does not have to show abuse or harm to remove a child from their mom and dad. I don’t find this belief to be “troubling”, I find it to be frightening. Here are my thoughts on improving the DSS process for removal of children who may be at risk of harm or threat of harm.
- Require more oversight when DSS requests the removal of a child on an emergency basis: The primary way DSS takes children from us is by going to court on an “Ex Parte” petition for the emergency removal of a child. Ex Parte means that the only evidence submitted to a family court judge for their consideration is provided by DSS without any evidence to the contrary submitted by the family. In most cases the family will know nothing about this until DSS shows up with law enforcement to take the children after the Ex Parte petition has been issued. Our family court judges have one of the largest caseloads in the United States and I believe that a majority of Ex Parte removal orders are “rubber stamped” with very little oversight. We need to have more than one Judge, and perhaps even non judges, review these requests in a more deliberative manner.
- Require DSS to notify the family’s attorney prior to seeking an Ex Parte removal order. Sometimes DSS is actually dealing with an attorney representing a family prior to requesting an Ex Parte removal order. DSS should be required to disclose to the attorney of a family from whom they are seeking to remove children their intent to obtain an Ex Parte order so that the family’s attorney can submit evidence in opposition to the DSS request.
- Require DSS case workers to video and audio record all communications with any family with whom they come in contact. It is clear in the Hogan ruling that DSS feels that the law does not apply to them, and that their actions will justify the means. Taking a child from their parents is, in my opinion, more offensive to our personal liberties than incarcerating a person in our penal system. DSS should not be permitted to interview people and force them to enter into agreements (the “safety plan”) without an attorney present unless the interview is video and audio recorded for later judicial review. These so called “safety plans” are often signed by people who later state that they were manipulated and coerced by DSS into signing it under the threat of removal of their child who would then be placed into foster care.
Many of us who have dealt with DSS over the years have come to know them as a disorganized, abusive, and manipulative governmental agency with too much power and not enough oversight. I am glad that the Court of Appeals found their legal position “troubling” and (hopefully) caused them to realize that they are not above the law. The South Carolina legislature has now begun an investigation into DSS and in this attorney’s opinion, major reforms are past due.