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In South Carolina, Class Action Lawsuit Pits Foster Kids Against State


Child welfare advocates filed a class action lawsuit this afternoon against the state of South Carolina, saying it has failed to protect thousands of children in its care. The advocates are demanding changes at a state agency that has faced repeated cases of child deaths and mismanagement. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For several years now, South Carolina's Department of Social Services has been criticized for mismanagement and abuse in its foster care homes. The state held hearings and officials promised change. The agency also recently got a new leader, but now the department is facing new criticism, this time from the children. The class action lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court in Charleston and it's based on the complaints of 11 kids in foster care.

Sue Berkowitz is an attorney with South Carolina's Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

SUE BERKOWITZ: The South Carolina Department of Social Services has been neglecting the children that are in its care for decades.

SULLIVAN: Appleseed helped bring the suit, along with children's rights and national nonprofit.

BERKOWITZ: Not only are they not being protected, they're not given an opportunity to recover. And we should be just ashamed as a state.

SULLIVAN: The suit alleges the state has failed to provide therapy, counseling and medical care for the children, even when they appear to have been physically or sexually abused in foster care or group homes. It says the state moves the kids repeatedly from home to home - in some cases 10 or 15 times per child - places an inordinately high number of children in group homes rather than with families, and lacks an adequate number of foster homes or caseworkers.

BERKOWITZ: We know that it's a systemic problem and not just an isolated problem that needs to be fixed.

SULLIVAN: In a statement, South Carolina's Department of Social Services says,

The department and its caseworkers are dedicated to ensuring that foster children get the care that meets their needs.

But Stephanie Trevitz, who's not a party to the suit, says it sums up her experience with the state's social services. Trevitz and her husband Rex took in six foster children. Trevitz is a special education teacher and wanted to take on some of the hardest cases. What she says she wasn't prepared for was being left to fend for herself by the Department of Social Services.

STEPHANIE TREVITZ: It's been easier to bury my mother than it has been to get services through DSS. Everything for these children has been a fight. And I'm connected, I know who to call - or at least I know who to try to call - and I worry about those families or those people who don't have the abilities that I do.

SULLIVAN: She says one of her children came to her having already been placed in 13 homes by the age of 11, in some of which he had been abused.

TREVITZ: That child deserves more than what he has gotten, and he deserves services now.

SULLIVAN: Trevitz and her husband went on to adopt the six children. Child advocates say they hope that by filing suit the state will be forced to change the way it looks after the children in its care. Laura Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.