COLUMBIA --- The director of South Carolina's social services agency wants to speed up the time it takes to find safe, permanent homes for the thousands of abused and neglected children put in the state's care.
It's a goal the Department of Social Services has struggled to accomplish for years. Six months into office, Director Lillian Koller is confident the agency can improve, and she insists it will do so dramatically.
She has put her goals into concrete numbers.
Koller has charged her agency with placing 50 percent more children now in foster care into a "safe, loving home for life," either through adoption or reunification with their biological parents.
It's a tall order. Over the past few years, adoptions of foster children have risen by 5 percent. Koller wants to hit the 50 percent goal by next June and make progress toward it monthly.
"Every month, every county has an installment due. It's very clear, unambiguous and measurable," Koller said last week. "We have to hold ourselves accountable, keep the focus on what is more important than anything else."
She dismisses questions about budget cuts and staff reductions amid the recession. She is adamant the agency will get the job done, and even exceed her goals, with the money and manpower it has.
What happens if the agency doesn't meet them is unclear.
What is certain, Koller says, are the consequences for years of instability, especially for foster children who "age out" of the system and are on their own at 18.
Studies show those children and adults are much more likely to drop out of school, live in poverty, become unemployed and homeless, commit crimes and end up in jail, she said.
"It's very important for children to have a forever family," said Sue Williams, the CEO of the Children's Trust of South Carolina. "There's a sense of knowing for a child, this is where I live. ... They get it even when they're very young that this is a forever family or a maybe family."
It affects children's ability to trust, to respect authority, feel connected and plan for the future, she said.
About 4,000 children in foster care in South Carolina have been stuck there, without a permanent home, for more than 17 months. That's about half of the children the agency sees in any given year, Koller said.
The latest report, for 2009-10, shows 785 children found permanent homes through adoption or reunification after being in the system that long. To meet Koller's goal, the agency must place 392 additional children this fiscal year -- giving a lifelong family to 1,177 foster children languishing in the system.
To help meet the goals, the agency is bringing together a group of professionals and advocates to meet monthly, starting this month.
The group will begin focusing on 300 children, chosen because of the length of time they've been in care, and determine exactly what is going on in their cases and what must be done, said Isabel Blanco, who is heading the agency's effort.