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NEWS: Bipartisan effort seeks to create child advocacy watchdog

By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent | After two years of frightening stories about how an understaffed state agency failed to protect children in its care, two state senators are proposing the creation of a consolidated, watchdog children's advocate.

This new oversight agency would bring the state's child advocacy services under a single, dedicated watchdog. A single bill, which was expected to emerge this week had the General Assembly not shut down due to winter weather, should be ready to trot out of the Child Affairs subcommittee Jan. 24, according to its backers.

S.C. Sens. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, separately filed bills that would wrap up a spate of child advocacy agencies, such as Guardian ad Litem and S.C. Foster Care Review Board. According to Sheheen and Shealy, state agencies would maintain their individual children's services but, under the new move, could cut duplicative child-related services, streamline communications and have a shared, new watchdog and advocate.

"(These agencies have) been floating around without a lot of attention," Sheheen told Statehouse Report Wednesday. "We consolidate them into one agency with a watchdog function to make sure kids who come into the system aren't forgotten, neglected or abused."

The primary differences between Shealy's S. 805 and Sheheen's S. 795 are the proposed names of the department (Sheheen's is called the Department of Children's Services, while Shealy's is called Department of Children's Advocacy), and Sheheen's bill included a non-child related service, which would need to be taken up in separate legislation to go under a different department, Sheheen said.

Shealy said the effort will have "some teeth" to help make sure children don't fall through the cracks in the state. According to her version of the bill, the new agency and its consolidated divisions would be "responsible for ensuring that children receive adequate protection and care from services or programs offered by the Department of Social Services, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, the John de la Howe School, the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School, and the School for the Deaf and Blind."

It would also establish a toll-free hotline for reporting abuse or neglect.

The centralized oversight effort would not do anything toward reforming the state Department of Social Services (DSS), which includes actions such as responding to allegations of abuse. Those services are expected to remain within DSS. But Sheheen said the new watchdog would foster consolidation of support and watch over DSS's functions to make sure children were protected appropriately.

In 2016, DSS received heightened scrutiny for the rising number of child fatalities in the state.

Currently, some of the state's child advocacy agencies operate under the Department of Administration, which typically is a human resources and state-agency supporting department. Sheheen said that's not the place for children's services.

"These divisions already exist; they're just not organized and they're not working together," he said. "It is freeing agencies or divisions to promote their goals and not having them locked up in an administrative agency that's not intended to serve children."

Both bills have received first reading and referral to the Senate General Committee, which will take up a consolidated bill when it comes out of the Child Affairs subcommittee, according to Shealy.

A fiscal impact report from the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office has not been made yet, but Shealy and Sheheen agree the move could end up saving money, despite hiring a new director.

"There should be some savings by combining the division," Sheheen said. The agencies can save by combining duplicative services and outsourcing human resources and other administrative functions to the Department of Administration. "The whole point is to make sure this agency doesn't incur duplicative costs."

Each agency would pitch in toward the cost of the new director, he added. The director would be called the State Child Advocate, and would be appointed by the governor upon the advice and consent of the Senate, according to Shealy's bill.

She said she doesn't expect the bipartisan proposal to draw controversy or get hung up in committee.

"It always works better if you have both sides of the aisle working together," she said. "When you work with children's issues, everybody ought to be on board. That should be a bipartisan issue."

She added that the agencies included in the move have expressed support.


LOOKING AHEAD: Harassment, ethics, State of the State, more

Staff reports | The Senate still lacks a harassment policy, though one has been drafted for the body. The policy is awaiting approval from the Operations and Management Committee, which could come as soon as next week, according to S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. After it passes the committee, then it will go to senators who will have to sign on to it. No vote is needed to pass the policy.

Shealy also said "people are talking" on ethics reform. There are several bills filed in the House and Senate, but she said don't expect any contentious debate until after the bodies take up more of the utility reform in the wake of the V.C. Summer canceled nuclear project.

"When that comes over from the house, we don't want to be stuck on something in the special-order slot and we can't get off of it and solve that problem," Shealy said. "That's an issue that has to be taken care of."

Also head for the coming week:

  • State of the State. Gov. Henry McMaster will deliver the State of the State at 7 p.m. Wednesday -- a week after it originally was scheduled, but was postponed due to winter weather. McMaster, a Columbia Republican, is expected to highlight a call for a massive income tax cut and ways to make state purchases, particularly for vehicles, more efficiently. The Democratic response will be given by S.C. Rep. James Smith, a Columbia lawmaker who is running for governor. His primary opponent, Phil Noble, this week criticized the decision for Smith to provide the response.

  • Children's affairs. The Senate subcommittee on Children's Affairs will meet 3 p.m. Wednesday in 207 Gressette to consider bills to add a new agency to serve as a watchdog for children's services, as outlined in this Statehouse Report story. There's also a Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee meeting set for 9 a.m. Thursday in Gressette 209.

  • Dam safety. Senators on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee will hear a report from the state on dam safety during a 9 a.m. Thursday meeting in 207 Gressette.

Few House committee meetings were scheduled as of publication time Friday..


BRACK: Teaching more about civil rights era will bring us together

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher | A teenager almost started to cry Sunday as she read a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Her white peers, normally boisterous, were markedly subdued as they witnessed stark museum displays of what life was like for black Southerners during civil rights struggles.

One thing was clear for more than two dozen Charleston youths on a church trip to learn about the South's special kind of past apartheid: They had no real understanding about what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South of 60 years ago. They didn't learn it from textbooks and lessons in school. They had no real concept of the flashes of vitriol, hate and anger that rocked many Southern communities as they wrestled with civil rights and big cultural changes following World War II.

"They know about Martin Luther King and maybe Rosa Parks - a brief history - but I think that's where it stops," observed the Rev. Canon Caleb Lee, a pastor at Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston who led the youths on the four-day pilgrimage to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery.

These kids didn't know how bad it was in some parts of the South when their grandparents - or great-grandparents - were their same age. They didn't know about drooling, snarling attack dogs that police turned on blacks in Alabama. They didn't know about the deaths, the arrests, the non-violent protests turned into melees. They didn't know about the firehoses, the colored water fountains and the starkly different classrooms for blacks compared to whites. They didn't really understand much about earlier decades of lynching or the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four girls died. They didn't know about all of the violence, the hate, and the conflict that ripped apart towns and cities for more than a decade.

In one sense, maybe it's good these students didn't know until now about the South's bloody civil rights history. They are growing up in a time when helicoptering parents offer bubbles of protection from all sorts of bad things that happen in the world. They're members of an always-connected tech generation who seem to have cell phones surgically attached to their bodies. They live in an era of acceptance that is much different from the divisions of three generations ago that increasingly but slowly became more tolerant.

To say the trip was eye-opening is an understatement.

"They learned that there's a whole lot in the world they don't know about," said Lee, an Episcopal priest in his 30s. "I learned there's a whole lot I don't know.

"To experience it was profound," he said. "To go to that church and go to that museum [Birmingham Civil Rights Institute] and walk the bridge [in Selma, Ala.] and ride that road they walked and end up in Montgomery. … It brings the importance to the forefront. When you experience something, it's a whole other level. I won't forget it."

Unfortunately, too many kids across the South don't get such a first-hand encounter with our civil rights past. They get a day off of school or hear about the past from parents and grandparents. It's not visceral.

Today, there's no point in wallowing in our Southern past, but it is important for us to understand how far we've come - and how far we still have to go. If we forget the past, we may be destined to slip back into the intolerance and racism that separated us.

A modern parallel is the Holocaust, which happened a dozen years before America's civil rights struggles began. Fewer and fewer survivors are around to tell of the horrors of Nazi Germany. And what has erupted as time passed on? Holocaust deniers who claim the deaths of millions of Jews never really happened.

For the South, a region enamored with a moonlight and magnolia history, it's vital that we continue to connect with our recent past and not forget it. It can help bring us together more. Let's also hope communities and schools across the South start teaching more about moral courage and our struggles for civil rights than the old, dead history of a civil war that has torn us apart for more than a century.


The South Carolina Education Association

The public spiritedness of our underwriters allows us to bring Statehouse Report to you at no cost. This week’s spotlighted underwriter is The South Carolina Education Association(The SCEA), the professional association for educators in South Carolina. Educators from preK to 12th grade comprise The SCEA.

The SCEA is the leading advocate for educational change in South Carolina. Educators in South Carolina look to The SCEA for assistance in every aspect of their professional life. From career planning as a student to retirement assessment as a career teacher, The SCEA offers assistance, guidance, and inspiration for educators.


Big gun

Contributing photographer Michael Kaynard of Charleston sent along this photo of a big, old gun that's located somewhere in South Carolina. But where? Have you seen it? Send your best guess - plus your name and hometown - to feedback@statheousereport.com. In the subject line, write: "Mystery Photo guess."

Last week's mystery, Winter wonderland, was a beautiful snowy image of the Angel Oak on Johns Island in Charleston County. Thanks to Stuart Williams of Charleston for the photo.

Hats off to all who correctly guessed what it was: Dale Rhodes of Richmond, Va.; Don Hottel, Helen Foley, Jay Altman and Tigerron Wells, all of Columbia; Haidee Stith of Lexington; Philip Cromer of Beaufort; Daniel Prohaska of Moncks Corner; Bill Segars of Hartsville; and Steve Willis of Lancaster. Some 18 other people, including veteran sleuths Tom Tindall of Edisto Island and George Graf of Palmyra, Va., identified the same photo is our sister publication, Charleston Currents.

Prohaska shared, "Angel Oak is a breathtaking natural monument and at an estimated 400-500 years old is nearly twice as old as the United States. If you haven't been, you need to visit this natural wonder."

Tindall added: "The photo is of Angel Oak, a huge Southern live oak located in Angel Oak Park on Johns Island. The tree is estimated to be 400-500 years old and derives its name from the estate of Justus Angel and his wife, Martha Waight Tucker Angel. Local folklore tells stories of ghosts of former slaves appearing as angels around the tree.
"Despite the claims that the Angel Oak is the oldest tree east of the Mississippi River, bald cypress trees throughout North and South Carolina are significantly older. The old tree was damaged severely during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 but has since recovered and the City of Charleston has owned the tree and surrounding park since 1991."

  • Send us a mystery: If you have a photo that you believe will stump readers, send it along (but make sure to tell us what it is because it may stump us too!) Send to: feedback@statehousereport.com and mark it as a photo submission. Thanks.
EDITOR'S NOTE

Statehouse Report is experiencing database issues and our full offerings are not online now. We will publish this week through our Facebook page. But you can find recentnews and views in the sections at left.

IN THIS ABBREVIATED ISSUE

ISSUE 17.03 | Jan. 19, 2018

NEWS: Bipartisan effort seeks to create child advocacy watchdog

CALENDAR: Harassment, ethics, State of the State, more

BRACK: Teaching more about civil rights era will bring us together

SPOTLIGHT: The South Carolina Education Association

MYSTERY: Big gun

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