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Elizabeth G. "Libba" Patterson
Based on an article that appeared in The State newspaper on
Elizabeth G. "Libba" Patterson is the first Mom to be director of the S.C. Department of Social Services. These are two titles that she proudly wears.
Patterson doesn't apologize for her plans to apply "that mother-feeling" to DSS as Gov. Jim Hodges’ appointee to run the agency that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians.
"When I read an article in the paper about a child that was beaten to death by his parents, my heart just breaks, and I always go and hug my daughter, as kind of a substitute for hugging that child," she said. "It just hurts me."
Patterson said the impact of her maternal approach will be subtle, but will extend to every corner of the agency - from welfare to foster care to day care to child abuse. "It's almost like you feel like a mother to all of the kids in the system," she said.
Libba Patterson is a well-respected child advocate who has been an active and visible presence in the public policy arena. A professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, she has specialized in health and children’s issues. Before coming to DSS, she was director of the Office for Families in the Legal System at USC’s Institute for Families in Society and Interim Director of the USC Children’s Law Office.
She’s strong-willed and a tough advocate. Patterson, who co-wrote the state’s Child Protection Reform Act, also has the respect of Family Court Judges.
"There's nobody who has worked longer trying to make the service for kids better than Libba, even when she was just the lone voice," said Family Court Judge Bill Byars. "She just wouldn't quit. You could knock her down nine times, and she'd get up the 10th time.
"She has staying power and she’s very passionate," said Byars who chaired the Bench-Bar Committee that worked to successfully restructure laws affecting children. "Nobody has more knowledge of the law and legal proceedings and impediments that relate to children."
Gov. Jim Hodges says he picked Patterson because she understands the needs of a health and human services agency.
"I put the hard sell on her; I'll tell you that," Hodges explained. "I worked her pretty hard. She was surprised, and heck, I would say that she was taken aback by it and said, 'I've really got to think about this.'"
"I really felt like what we needed was someone who came from the outside of social-service agencies, with a different perspective, and yet who had worked a lot with the agency," Hodges said. "I think clearly my philosophy is that everything starts with having healthy and well-educated children, and my sense is Libba shares that philosophy."
Patterson says her esteem for the new Democratic governor, plus her familiarity with several DSS programs, persuaded her to accept and accept quickly.
"It was just too much of an opportunity for me to pass up," Patterson said. "An opportunity to address problems that I had been aware of for some time."
Patterson, whose appointment must be confirmed by the S.C. Senate, thinks many DSS programs can be improved by making the needs of children more of a priority. Part of her mission, she said, is "thinking and raising in the discussion the little, immediate impacts of things we do on the children and how we can make that work better. And how we can make our foster kids feel more in control of their lives."
Patterson believes good policy has been developed in recent years, but much of it hasn't filtered down to front-line caseworkers - in part because they are overworked, underpaid and haven't had adequate support from the higher-ups. "It's a very, very hard job," she said. "The kinds of decisions that they make are very difficult."
DSS staffers said Patterson already has injected new vitality into the agency. Employee morale is high since her arrival, especially in programs that affect children.
"Encouraged - that's the biggest word that's been spreading around," said Laura Claspill, a day-care licensing specialist. "Everyone is encouraged."
Patterson began with a clear message to employees. During the same speech when she told them about being a mom, she also expressed her intent to help them.
"I started off at the very beginning to try to make them understand that I value them, that I would support them, that I had goals that I would really like to see this agency achieve, and that they were really important in achieving those goals," Patterson said. "And I think that if you watch me perform in the agency, the facts will speak for themselves in that regard."
Many of those goals simply involve improving services at the county level; others are more experimental.
For example, Patterson wants to give "a fair test" to a pilot project for child protective services she helped devise. The program gives the agency more flexibility in how it responds to difficult situations and calls for enlisting the help of other community resources in cases where law enforcement isn't the best answer.
Patterson said there won't be a "sea change" in South Carolina's approach to welfare reform.
"If I were making changes in the welfare program that's in place now, the chances are that they might involve an injection of a greater level of compassion into the program," she said.
"All I know is that in reporting on performance, that those reports are always framed in terms of numbers," she said. "And sometimes I feel like we need to look behind the numbers."
Children's advocates have high expectations for Libba Patterson, the new leader of the state Department of Social Services.
Patterson is a former USC Law School professor who helped write state laws protecting children from abuse. She says DSS needs to respond better to the troubled children it is charged with helping.
"Her interest is definitely on children," said Bettye McCall, executive director of Palmetto Place Children's Emergency Shelter. "She has their welfare at heart."
No one knows better than Patterson that meeting those expectations won't be easy.
"It's a scary thing really, because so much of what happens is dependent on a huge bureaucracy," she said. "I'm certainly going to do my darnedest."
In recent years, DSS has erred, returning abused children to abusive homes or moving them to homes that proved to be dangerous.
Making the agency's work more difficult, workers charged with protecting children are paid little and leave often -- 30 percent depart every year.
Many children's advocates describe DSS the way McCall does: an agency with "enormous problems."
But it's also an agency charged with a tremendously difficult job -- trying to fix the lives of children whose parents are failing them.
"In some ways, we expect DSS to perform miracles, just like we expect a doctor to perform miracles," McCall said. "You smoke for 40 years, and then expect a doctor to save your life.
"You can't do it that way."
Front-line changes. Patterson talked about her goals recently.
Since being named director in January, Patterson has made only one change to her office's decor, adding a musical stuffed frog. Instead, she's been concentrating on other things.
Patterson wants the agency to improve the way it treats troubled families. Ultimately, she said, DSS should work to prevent child abuse, not just try to patch children's lives back together after they are hurt.
Some of the changes she wants to make seem obvious but may be hard to carry out, Patterson said.
"Assuring that we have an adequate number of adequately paid front-line staff is really easy to say, and people have been saying it for years. But figuring out how to make that happen is very difficult."
Instead, DSS hasn't been able to keep staffers from leaving.
Keeping staffers on the job is crucial, said Beebe James, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse South Carolina.
"My hope is that an increased emphasis will be put on the front-line workers," James said. "We can have fine laws. But if the people on the front lines don't have the support and the training they need, they can't adequately handle the situation."
As a result, James said, "Children are in danger of being re-injured by the system."
Wrong decisions can be deadly. Four years ago, for instance, several Aiken County children died in foster-care homes.
Last October, 6-year-old Charnell Smith was beaten to death by her aunt and cousins. DSS had removed her from her mother's home, and she was placed with her aunt.
In April, 13-month-old Joshua Parker was beaten to death, reportedly by his 11-year-old cousin. After DSS removed him from his mother's custody, he had been moved to the home of his great-aunt.
When such cases occur, DSS workers often are blamed. Critics say those workers are often overworked and have too little training and experience.
"It's so easy to come down hard on DSS caseworkers," James said. "But the job they're doing, under extremely difficult circumstances, is huge."
Those workers need more help from the agency, Patterson said.
"It's a tough job. Sometimes they have to go into frightening situations, and they make tough judgment calls. It's very draining."
Too often, she said, workers are blamed when they have little time and too few choices for helping a child.
"I believe we have no idea what decisions our front-line caseworkers could make if they had reasonable caseloads, a supportive environment and a system that allowed a range of judgments," she said.
At any one time, the average DSS worker is handling 12 to 20 cases involving abused children.
Patterson wants to make those jobs more attractive, starting with higher pay. A beginning child protection worker is paid about $21,000 now.
Patterson also wants to lower the number of cases each worker handles. Training also should be improved, she said, noting it is now "not extensive."
Beginning workers receive three weeks' training in Columbia. They are required to get five more days of training each year. More training classes are encouraged, but whether workers have time to take them varies from county to county.
Patterson said she's also trying to make smaller changes to make the job easier. For example, she's started paying caseworkers $1 an hour when they are on call. Before, they weren't paid unless they were called to a case.
Patterson also wants to change how DSS workers approach reports of abuse.
Many of the complaints the agency gets involve children who aren't being seriously mistreated. For example, they might be left at home alone or neglected. In those cases, the best solution is often to help the parent fix the problem and keep the child in the home.
But DSS procedures require that workers first investigate abuse, not help the family. Those investigative procedures pit worker and parent against each other, making it harder to work together later, Patterson said.
She wants to expand a pilot program that puts child protection complaints on a "dual track" system. Under that system, reports of physical or sexual abuse would receive a traditional investigation. In other cases, workers would try to help parents care for their children better or get needed services. That could mean something as simple as finding neighbors willing to baby-sit or give rides to work, she said.
"The laws that created this reporting system (have made people think) that when they think a child is not properly cared for, their job is to call DSS," Patterson said. "They don't do the normal neighborly things that we did once."
Patterson also said children's advocates are on target when they complain children in DSS custody aren't always well treated. She pointed to the case of a girl in foster care for 14 years. The girl was moved to 15 different homes, usually changing school districts each time.
"The system we have for ensuring their safety can be very hurtful to them," she said.
Part of the problem is there are too few foster parents. Patterson hopes a planned $4-a-day increase in payments to foster parents will help recruit more.
Can Patterson make the changes she plans without more money from lawmakers?
"I don't know, but I'm going to try," she said. "Then I can say what I've done with existing resources. But I'm not going to let them off the hook."