AIKEN - The future looks brighter for Helping Hands after months of controversy stirred by complaints that the emergency children's shelter was poorly managed.
On Friday, state officials with the Department of Social Services notified shelter officials they were again eligible for a standard, year-long operating license.
The renewed license is good through March 30, 1998 and replaces a temporary, 30-day license issued while state DSS completed its investigation of the shelter. The state agency pulled the shelter's regular license in November after receiving complaints ranging from children being underfed to lack of discipline to buildings being in disrepair.
"I feel great right now," said Deb Kohler, chairwoman of the shelter's board of directors. "I feel we've done a lot of work and made progress. I'm very encouraged."
DSS spokesman Jerry Adams said the shelter had addressed the most critical elements cited in the state's investigation.
"Clearly the most serious problems were addressed early on as far as health and safety are concerned," he said. "They were making progress in other areas also."
The 24-hour shelter, located on John Elliott Lane, houses abused and neglected children referred by Department of Social Services and Department of Juvenile Justice.
One bright spot from the controversy is better communication and coordination between shelter staff and the Aiken County DSS office, Ms. Kohler said.
Aiken County DSS Director Margaret Key said her agency's staff has worked closely with the shelter's board of directors and interim director, Sue Christopher.
"I think at the very least our communication with them is better," Ms. Key said. "We think they'll keep making some good decisions and keep improving."
Each day the shelter staff now notifies DSS of what bed space is available in the event caseworkers need to place a child at the shelter. That's something that wasn't routinely done before, Ms. Kohler said.
In the future, the shelter also plans to bring more services for its children on campus. As a start, Ms. Kohler said office space will be made available for mental health workers to do initial mental health evaluations and offer therapy for the children on-site.
"It's going to be much better for the children and give us more coordination (between agencies)," she said.
Ms. Christopher said staff members in recent months have also had additional training that exceeds the five hours required by the state, and an orientation program has been developed to give better overview of what the shelter does.
In January, state DSS licensing officials issued a list of 12 corrective measures needed at the shelter.
They included allowing the children to have their own clothing instead of sharing with each other; giving children toiletries such as towels, tooth brushes and combs; a menu approved by a registered dietician, representing what the children are actually fed; annual physicals for staff members including a tuberculosis test; and filing personnel records background checks done annually by the State Law Enforcement Division.