Children’s Trust of South Carolina CEO Sue Williams spoke to the South Carolina Joint Citizens Committee on Children at a Columbia public hearing on October 12 during the committee’s annual tour.

Williams reminded the committee that Children’s Trust was established by the South Carolina legislature in 1984 to award grants to nonprofit organizations and qualified state agencies to fund child abuse and neglect prevention programs. She shared that since State Director Michael Leach’s arrival at the South Carolina Department of Social Services four years ago, they have developed a productive and constructive partnership – which has been critical in better serving children and families.

Williams urged the legislators to consider opting into the Guardianship Assistance Program, a federal formula grant program that allows relatives who have assumed legal guardianship of eligible children to receive assistance payments – similar to those that foster parents receive. She emphasized South Carolina is one of 10 states that has not opted into the program and that doing so would give much-needed support to children in kinship care.

The committee consists of a bipartisan group of six lawmakers from the House and the Senate; it also includes three citizens appointed by the governor and the heads of statewide agencies including the Department of Social Services, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and the Department of Education. The full hearing in Columbia is available.

Children’s Trust board chair Tiffany Santagati also spoke to the Joint Citizens Committee on Children at a public hearing on September 29 in Greenville. 

Transcript of Williams’ testimony 

Good morning chairman and members of the committee,  

I am Sue Williams, chief executive officer, for Children’s Trust of South Carolina.  

First, I want to thank you for holding these hearings around the state. I understand the time commitment it takes on your part but sincerely believe they are crucial to identifying and addressing the needs of children, and their families, in South Carolina. 

You may know this but as a refresher, Children’s Trust of South Carolina was established in 1984 by the South Carolina legislature to award grants to nonprofit organizations and qualified state agencies to fund innovative child abuse and neglect prevention programs in order to meet the critical needs of South Carolina’s children.  

Since that time, Children’s Trust has grown into that mandate. We are the only statewide organization solely focused on preventing child abuse and neglect – before it ever happens. We lead and support a network of more than 50 organizations who share the belief that all children should thrive, live in secure families and be surrounded by supportive communities. We provide funding, resources and training to help our local program partners deliver proven prevention programs including the state’s coordinated efforts for family resource centers, the Strengthening Families Program, Triple P (Positive Parenting Program); South Carolina Adverse Childhood Experiences Initiative, Home Visiting and Child Abuse Prevention Month.  

There is a line in our statute that specifies, we must [quote] “supplement and augment but not take the place of services provided by state agencies.” This means Children’s Trust must have a keen understanding of how South Carolina and its agencies are investing in children, and supporting their families, so that our resources and know-how can build upon what is already at work. To deliver on our mandate, we must have a strong, productive working relationship with all state agencies in their service to children and their families, but specifically and in regard to our mandate of preventing abuse and neglect of children, the Department of Social Services.  

Since Director Michael Leach’s arrival at the South Carolina DSS four years ago, we have had that productive and constructive partnership. I believe that leadership at the top of an organization heavily influences culture and work ethic throughout, and it is refreshing and energizing to experience the positive difference Director Leach has made in his short four years. He and I regularly coordinate on a wide variety of joint initiatives, as do members of our teams.  Together in partnership, the Department of Social Service and Children’s Trust support the Strengthening Families Program, car seat safety, early care and education marketing and community prevention training.  

During his tenure, Director Leach has used his voice to influence and fuel the conversation around what it will take to transform South Carolina, shifting the system from one that simply responds to and treats abuse and neglect to one that understands and works to relieve the factors that determine it. If we can make sure families have what they need to provide safe, stable homes, we can keep families together and keep kids out of the system. We are proud to partner with DSS on the national initiative of Thriving Families, Safer Children which looks at those upstream investments and efforts that will build stronger families and communities across South Carolina.  

In a perfect world, children would not ever need to be removed from their parents and every child would have a safe, loving and nurturing home. But we don’t live in a perfect world. South Carolina DSS, under Director Leach and his leadership team, have worked hard to promote kinship care which allows children who have been removed from their homes to stay with relatives. This allows family units to stay intact, which lessens the trauma associated with separating children from their parents. 

Unfortunately, South Carolina is one of 10 states that has not opted into the federal Title IV-E Guardianship Assistance Program. This federal formula grant program allows relatives who have assumed legal guardianship of eligible children to receive assistance payments – similar to those that foster parents receive. We believe South Carolina should do everything it can to support families – especially those involved in kinship care. We believe opting into the Guardianship Assistance Program would be a big step in the right direction for these vulnerable children.  

I often talk about how we all must work together to prevent child abuse and neglect – individuals, organizations, communities and state agencies. This work is too big to leave it to just one agency. We all must do our part if we want to keep children safe and give them every opportunity to thrive.  

For the first time in a very long time, DSS is leaning into its leadership and moral mandate. We see their results, experience the passion they have for the most vulnerable in our state, and we readily look for more opportunities to work together. Speaking on behalf of the team at Children’s Trust, we are incredibly optimistic about the future of prevention in South Carolina.  

Again, and in closing, I thank you for your time today and commitment to the children and families of South Carolina.