State investigation reveals shortcomings in Department of Disability and Special Needs

Report details inadequate handling of possible abuse and years-long wait times for consumers
South Carolina’s Legislative Audit Council recently published the second part of their investigation into the state’s Department of Disabilities and Special Nee
Published: Oct. 24, 2023 at 12:47 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 25, 2023 at 11:28 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - South Carolina’s Legislative Audit Council (LAC) recently published the second part of their investigation into the state’s Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN). The report revealed failures in handling cases of suspected abuse and neglect, building issues at multiple regional centers, and wait times of several years for people needing specific services.

Members of the South Carolina General Assembly requested the LAC conduct an audit of the department to determine if DDSN was adequately serving consumers, protecting consumers from abuse, and if there needed to be changes to the agency’s structure, among other things.

The latest report published in October revealed multiple issues in the department’s handling of abuse cases. The LAC found the department does not have an adequate system to make sure employees who were fired for abuse, neglect, or exploitation were not later rehired. In fact, the LAC found multiple cases where a previously fired employee was later rehired. In those cases, the official reason for the employee leaving was listed as a “personal” reason and not a termination. Additionally, the LAC noted the need for an adult abuse registry in previous audits of DDSN, one of which occurred in 2008.

Forty-nine percent of HR files of employees did not have documentation of background checks, and 39 percent of the files did not have proof a check of the sex offender registry was done. Sixteen percent of the files had no documentation of required drug tests.

Additionally, the report found that, in 2021, staff at DDSN’s regional centers failed to report suspected incidents of abuse within 24 hours. In one instance, a case of abuse was not reported until 82 days after occurred, after staff reviewed video as part of a separate investigation.

The LAC’s report stressed the importance of surveillance video in cases of abuse, but the report found 70 percent of investigations did not have any video evidence, and there is no policy for where cameras should be in the regional centers.

The report also found executive staff members prevented video surveillance from being viewed in a timely manner by telling risk management employees they had no right to view the video. The department has a video retention policy of 60 days. The report noted this retention policy meant DDSN was not providing video evidence to state investigators in several investigations into possible abuse. When the LAC requested to review a random sample of surveillance video, the department released video including corrupted files and not within the requested time period.

Random on-site inspections at DDSN’s regional centers revealed broken ceiling tiles, peeling paint, and a courtyard covered in algae. The LAC reviewed the budget requests for the department, and found it did not request any funds for consumer equipment upgrades.

The report also found multiple issues in how DDSN handles appeals for eligibility determinations. From 2019 to 2021, the department did not overturn a single decision based on an appeal. The department also did not respond within the required time to 35 percent of appeals.

According the report, people who rely on DDSN for services face extended wait times, in some cases several years. DDSN offers three types of “waiver” programs, which are described by the department as a way for people to receive services in the community instead of in an institution. Overall, the report found people spent nearly four years on a waitlist to be enrolled in a waiver program. Some of the reasons for the extended wait time were inefficiencies in the system and case management errors.

In a response to the LAC, DDSN said there was “no excuse” for past shortcomings and noted many of the issues occurred under previous leadership. DDSN said it was creating new training requirements and would conduct unannounced audits of regional centers. DDSN said it would require staff to complete annual training to improve the timeliness of reporting to state investigators.

DDSN also said in its response that it is making several upgrades to its surveillance systems, including spending a total of $1,208,629.81 on camera improvements. DDSN also cited workforce shortages as an explanation for extended wait times for consumers.

FOX Carolina reached out to DDSN for a statement in response to this investigation:

“DDSN is aware that the South Carolina (SC) Legislative Audit Council (LAC) released its report: New and Continuing Issues at DDSN [Part 2 of 2], A Limited Review of the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs: (2023). As with the first part of the report, the South Carolina General Assembly requested the audit, and we cooperated fully by providing all requested information and clarifying details when asked, as we are mandated to do by state law.

We are still reviewing the full report. From what we’ve reviewed thus far, we agree that there are several opportunities for improvement across our agency. We will work with the state legislature and our staff to make those improvements, to ensure we serve those with disabilities and special needs in the best and most efficient way possible.”

DDSN representative

Below is a full copy of the report: