Originally created 09/18/96

DSS looking at security in wake of shooting Former caseworker says Aiken employees had questioned agency's decision to remove glass partition



AIKEN - Even before Monday's killings of three Aiken County social workers in North Augusta, employees in the agency's office in Aiken were concerned about changes in the security system there, a former caseworker said.

The caseworker, who asked not to be named, said questions were raised about a decision to remove a permanent glass partition that included a speaker system and a mail slot in favor of an open reception desk.

In one incident, an irate woman entered the Aiken office and made threats about taking a gun to Family Court with her, the former Department of Social Services employee said.

One eyewitness to Monday's events in North Augusta said David Mark Hill, the man who will be charged with the slayings when he comes out of surgery, walked freely through a connecting door between an outer waiting room and an open area where caseworkers sat at desks in partitioned cubicles.

Mr. Hill, 36, is accused of shooting to death Aiken County caseworkers Josie Curry, Michael Gregory and James Riddle. He later shot himself and was listed in critical condition Tuesday evening at Medical College of Georgia Hospital. He was expected to live.

Mary Barton, who was in the waiting room with two other women and two children, said the office was unprotected when Mr. Hill ran past her.

"They ought to be behind bulletproof glass," the Augusta woman said. "They're going to have to have better protection."

DSS has offices in all 46 counties in South Carolina. Its state office in Columbia has surveillance cameras and a security desk on the first floor. But the North Augusta branch did not have a security office, metal detector or other devices, said Jim Clark, state director for the agency.

Jerry Adams, spokesman for the state DSS, said Tuesday that the agency will review its security policies for county welfare offices.

Mr. Clark said he has asked State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart to examine DSS security "after all this dies down," referring to Monday's shootings.

DSS is also drafting a memo to workers, warning them to be careful about potential copycat assailants, Mr. Clark said.

Mr. Adams acknowledged that DSS offices statewide have had isolated incidents of violence, but nothing like Monday's events.

However, Mr. Adams said the agency doesn't want to create a bunker atmosphere that would discourage people from seeking help when they need it.

"We don't want our clients to feel like they're coming to jail to get their services," he said.

A statewide management team of regional administrators routinely discusses DSS policy on a wide range of issues, including security. Mr. Adams said they will look closely at Monday's tragedy.

The focus will be on asking, "How can they make sure this doesn't happen again without turning our agency into an armed camp?" Mr. Adams reiterated.

Security generally is left up to each county DSS office, he said. The general standard is creating a "safe" environment, and most offices rely on glass partitions and doors with security-coded locks, Mr. Adams said.

The DSS spokesman said the shootings are a first for the state agency. And such an incident could just as likely have happened outside the office because so much of the caseworkers' time is spent in the field, he said.

The agency annually investigates about 23,000 complaints of neglect and abuse, Mr. Adams said, adding that about 30 percent are found to be true. At any given time, the state has between 5,000 to 8,000 children in foster care, he said.

Meanwhile, DSS officials were dealing Tuesday with the aftermath of the killings and the morale of the staff. Mr. Adams said, however, that no workers had indicated they were thinking about resigning.

About 100 people arrived at the Aiken County DSS building to receive counseling, said Laurie Hobbs, site director of the North Augusta DSS office.

"We'll be doing that the next several days," Ms. Hobbs said.

Post Trauma Services officials from Columbia, state DSS officials and area ministers congregated at the office to help employees cope with the loss of their co-workers. Counselors will remain as long as needed, she said.

"I think everybody, including myself, is still in disbelief that it happened," said an employee in the Aiken DSS office who once worked with Ms. Curry and Mr. Gregory. "To know Mike and Josie and the type people they were, it's amazing ... it's hard to describe how I feel. We all said it could have happened to any of us because we've all been in situations with irate clients."

Mr. Adams said the shootings have affected the entire agency.

"This is one big family," he said. "Everybody's just devastated by it."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.