April 28, 2021
Laurens County, S.C. –
Partnering agencies are using two springtime months to spread the word that everyone needs to be working for the protection and safety of South Carolina’s children.
Silver and blue pinwheels mark April as Child Abuse Prevention Month and it’s followed by National Foster Care Awareness Month in May.
The two are intrinsically tied together, said Connelly-Anne Ragley, Director of Communications and External Affairs for the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
“Unfortunately, one child abuse case is too many,” Ragley said. “We are trying to sound the alarm, and using Child Abuse Prevention Month to alert Americans to look for the warning signs.”
The dichotomy of this year-long pandemic is that DSS officials knew that COVID-19 was setting the stage for increased abuse or neglect impacts on children, yet the reports of potential abuse and neglect were much lower than normal.
“In the pandemic there are heightened factors including food insecurity, education challenges, and we have spent this year working with many community partners to let people know there is help. There are options. There is a better way,” Ragley said.
During a typical school year the agency receives most reports from staff connected to the schools because those are the people who see the children most frequently. And like health care workers and law enforcement workers, education- related employees, whether they be cafeteria workers or guidance counselors, are mandated by law to report signs of child abuse and neglect.
With schools closed so much of this past year, those calls were not coming in.
“In April 2020 when the shut- downs first started, calls decreased significantly. They were down 53 percent from the previous April,” Ragley said. “It’s one of the benefits of in-person education because schools are safe places. The children receive nutritious meals and many teachers care for those children like their own and teachers can often gauge risk factors at their homes.”
To offer the public an opportunity to more easily report signs of potential abuse and neglect, in December, 2020, DSS launched an online portal and a telephone line staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because of that launching and the reopening of most schools, call levels have increased to more normal levels.
The phone line is 1-888- CARE4US, or (1-888-227-3487), and calls and reports are anonymous.
“That abuse and neglect line is staffed weekends, nights, holidays and we encourage the public to make calls about any non-emergency reports of abuse and neglect,” Ragley
said. “The online portal is available in a link listed under the DSS home page, https://dss.sc.gov, and we can’t help children unless we know about them.”
Those calls sometimes result in a need for foster care, and the state is also facing an alarming shortage of licensed foster parents.
“As of Monday last week, there were 3,995 children in foster care in South Carolina,” Ragley said. “There are 125 children in foster care from Laurens County. Richland County has 504, Charleston has 298 and Greenville is the highest with 629 children in foster care as of today, and we have a severe shortage of families willing to take older children and sibling groups.”
Changes in the way foster families go through the licensing process have increased the need for private foster care organizations to assist families. While regional agencies can serve Laurens County, the only agency based here is the Thornwell Foster Care Program in Clinton, said Jon Sampson, a foster parent who also serves as a foster family recruiter for the Thornwell program.
“The process can be overwhelming, and we help families navigate the process and we offer additional training and support,” Sampson said. “There is required training as man- dated by DSS, and we also offer more training opportunities for foster families.”
Laurens County currently has a shortage of about 100 foster families.
“Of that, 60 percent are needed for children over 7 years old,” Sampson said. “There is a big gap there and a lot of need.”
For those considering fostering children, Sampson said a website, Fostering Great Ideas, gives a map with the various licensing agencies serving each county. All the agencies work hand in hand with DSS.
“Ultimately, we need more foster homes, regardless of what agency licenses them,” Sampson said. “Thornwell has many families in Greenville and Spartanburg counties and has been seeking more families to meet the need in Laurens County.”
Sampson can be reached at 864- 735-8509, by email at [email protected] or questions can be submitted by following the Foster Care Program link on the menu bars at the Thornwell.org website.