February 28, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

An Agency Left Unchecked

Problems stem from lack of accountability

Problems stem from lack of accountability


Every government body deals with its share of problems. In an ideal world, proper oversight systems are in place so that when those issues arise, the right people can be held accountable. But what happens when a government department answers to virtually no one? Look no further than the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (DDSN), which has been the site of alleged abuse and exploitation for nearly a decade.

The DDSN provides services and care for individuals suffering from intellectual disabilities, autism, and brain injuries.

Two Legislative Audit Council reports, one in 2008 and one in 2014, leveled heavy criticism against the agency. The reports indicate that “consumers’ funds are often mishandled by DDSN board staff”, and that “DDSN’s procedures to handle threats to consumer safety” may not be sufficient.

There were even accusations of staff “jumping on” on a resident of a group home early last year, leaving the individual with a bruised rib.

All of this begs the question: Who can citizens hold accountable? The answer is, practically, no one.

The department is governed by a seven-member commission and a director selected by the commission. Commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The director can only be removed by the commission, and commissioners can only be removed by the governor for narrowly defined criteria. This means it’s virtually impossible for anyone, especially taxpayers, to hold DDSN accountable when problems arise.

Instead of addressing the core issue – a proper accountability structure – lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to hold the agency accountable themselves. The House healthcare oversight subcommittee is currently conducting a study to investigate DDSN, and many of its findings have left lawmakers puzzled.

Rep. Phyllis Henderson who chairs the committee said “They have so many programs with all these moving targets and all these multi-county things, I don’t know how they are doing what they are doing.”

While it’s concerning that the committee can’t understand DDSN, legislative oversight committees have no real power to begin with – meaning they can’t hold DDSN accountable. Beyond gathering information and making suggestions, there is little lawmakers can do without actually changing the law.

Time and time again, legislative committees have proven themselves ineffective at holding subordinate agencies accountable.  Just consider the abysmal oversight by the Public Utilities Review Committee over the VC summer project. Had they done their job and identified the glaring red flags before them, ratepayers might not be burdened with billions of dollars in debt.

The correct solution would be to place the DDSN under the direct control of the governor. Even Rep. Henderson agreed: “Honestly, without studying it in greater detail, I think this whole thing needs to be a cabinet agency and all these boards need to go away.”

A bill to do just that – for DDSN, at least – was introduced in the Senate this year. S.180 would allow the governor to appoint the DDSN director with confirmation by the Senate, and remove him or her at will. The bill is currently in committee and may be addressed next session.

Lawmakers are in over their heads with this and they know it. If they want to fix the problem, and it sounds like they do, they should hand the keys over to someone who can get the job done.

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The Nerve