Originally created 01/29/97

Probe finds problems at children's shelter



AIKEN - A state investigation of an emergency children's shelter in Aiken has turned up evidence that the children were underfed, poorly clothed, had inadequate medical care and were allowed to run free with little or no discipline.

Unless a dozen corrective measures from the state Department of Social Services are completed by Feb. 10, Helping Hands risks losing its license. The license was downgraded from standard to a temporary one on Jan. 10.

Among the reported findings of deficiencies:

Children in the facility had a continuing problem with head lice, and staff apparently didn't know how to treat the problem.

Staff members were administering Tylenol to children with a fever for two days while waiting for DSS workers to take the children to the doctor.

Aiken County DSS Director Margaret Key said Tuesday that caretakers in a foster care home or 24-hour shelter where there are children are responsible for seeking medical care.

Children were allowed to throw temper tantrums and destroy things with minimal intervention from staff because they feared the children would report them to DSS for abuse.

Moldy bread, old baby formula and menus that didn't meet federal guidelines were used. In the report, staff members are specifically told that "chips should not be substituted for vegetables."

Additionally, inadequate portions were served to children. Additional food and supplies could not be attained when needed from the facility's warehouse because it was locked due to stealing by staff members.

The report also states the building was in disrepair with a broken window in a bedroom fixed with cardboard, had nine bedrooms without light fixtures, and a heating system was out of order. Roaches and ants infested the shelter, the report states.

The state DSS, which conducts annual reviews of all such facilities in the South Carolina, was asked to investigate complaints of mismanagement in November. The next regular review would have been in March.

The shelter's board of directors suspended with pay two managers, including director Robert Cantu, on Nov. 9.

State DSS spokesman Jerry Adams could not say Tuesday if Helping Hands had been cited for past problems that may have prompted the temporary license. But finding deficiencies at this and other shelters is routine with annual reviews, he said.

"History of Helping Hands is like other providers," the DSS spokesman said. "There'll be problems and things and we'll work with them."

The 24-hour shelter for abused and neglected youth on John Elliott Lane opened in 1972. Most children are referred there by Aiken County DSS, but the state Department of Juvenile Justice also has housed children at the facility.

Ms. Key said DSS has no plans to stop referring children there, and her agency wants to work with the shelter to turn things around.

Among the corrective measures the shelter must take are improving maintenance; giving children toiletries such as towels, toothbrushes and combs; providing and following a menu approved by a registered dietitian; and requiring annual background checks on staff by the State Law Enforcement Division

Mr. Adams said the shelter's board members and staff have already shown signs of correcting some of the deficiencies.

Deb Kohler, who started her duties as board president within the past week, said a proposed plan of action for 1997 has been sent to the state DSS as well as a list of corrective steps taken to address issues raised in the investigation.

"There are things in that report that the board doesn't necessarily agree with, but we will make sure everything that's in the report is responded to," Ms. Kohler said.

A fire inspection has been done, and a sprinkler in a cottage housing male teen-agers has been replaced, Ms. Kohler said. Also, a thorough pest control treatment was done through the entire facility, and the head lice problem is under control, she said.

There have also been changes in the menu and adjustments in developmental programs provided to the children, Ms. Kohler added.