From left, Carolyn Morris, Christopher Church, Kristen Seay, Cynthia Flinn

Saving Elyse

Cold Case Project focuses on adolescents at risk for aging out of foster care

Elyse was a month away from turning 18, and her life was about to change dramatically. The young woman had spent most of her life in foster care, and, as a vulnerable adult with moderate cognitive impairment, she was scheduled to be involuntarily committed. It was far from a perfect solution, but, left on her own without protection, Elyse would become a prime target for exploitation.

There was an outside chance — if all the stars aligned and miles of red tape unwound — that Elyse could be reunited with her sister in another state.

Christopher Church wasn’t optimistic about the latter possibility, but he was determined to do everything possible to make it happen. A lawyer with the University of South Carolina’s Children’s Law Center, Church had become familiar with every detail of Elyse’s story. She had been born to a mother with similar cognitive challenges; adopted by a parent in South Carolina who abandoned Elyse a year later; then sent to a group foster home.

“When I met with her for the first time, here was a girl who, in spite of her mental challenges, was very clear about what she wanted,” Church says. “She wanted to be with her family.”

Church heads the Cold Case Project, an initiative in the Children’s Law Center, funded by Casey Family Programs in partnership with the Department of Social Services. Cold Case focuses on a select group of adolescents who have lingered in the S.C. foster system and are at risk for aging out of foster care without achieving legal permanency — that is, without a family.

Partnering with DSS and the family courts, Cold Case staff find ways to reunite these at-risk foster children with responsible family members or to match them with a new family. With children’s lives at stake, giving up is not an option.


Improving outcomes

The Children’s Law Center was launched in 1995 as an outreach of the University of South Carolina’s School of Law. Its mission? To improve outcomes for children by enhancing the knowledge and skills of professionals and promoting informed, sound public policy.

Assistant director Carolyn Morris earned an M.S.W. degree from Carolina and dealt with many cases of child abuse and neglect at Kershaw County Hospital in the late 1970s and ’80s. She now supervises the Children’s Law Center’s efforts to conduct more than 300 training programs for some 10,000 professionals and volunteers in the legal community.

“We believe that better court hearings yield better outcomes for children,” Morris says. “And that can happen when juvenile prosecutors and public defenders, Department of Juvenile Justice staff and Department of Social Services caseworkers get proper and professional training. There’s too much at stake for us as a state not to get it right when it comes to the welfare of children.”

In addition to providing extensive training, the center started a court liaison program three years ago that provides a link between DSS or DJJ and family court. The 18 court liaisons prepare information sheets to inform family court judges about the status of individual cases so that court sessions can more efficiently focus on finding solutions rather than sorting out facts. The liaison program is particularly helpful in the Palmetto State, where family court judges travel a circuit and often hear cases with which they have little familiarity, Morris says.

We believe that better court hearings yield better outcomes for children. And that can happen when juvenile prosecutors and public defenders, Department of Juvenile Justice staff and Department of Social Services caseworkers get proper and professional training.

Carolyn Morris, assistant director of the Children’s Law Center

With about 8,500 confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect requiring DSS intervention last year, the need for thorough and professional investigation is clear. The Children’s Law Center is raising private funding to renovate the Whaley House, located on the corner of Bull and Gervais across from the new law school building, as a headquarters and training center.

Plans call for creating a mock courtroom to better prepare volunteers and legal professionals for child welfare hearings and a mock house to train child abuse investigators in spotting clues to abuse and neglect in residential environments.

“Those who are required by law to report child abuse — teachers, doctors, law enforcement and DSS caseworkers — train with us,” Morris says.

Retired family court judges and lawyers assist with legal training for new DSS caseworkers, which includes mock hearings in which caseworkers testify and are cross examined. The center also provides weeklong Child First sessions, which demonstrate how to interview children who have been sexually abused.

“We use adult actors, and they’re amazing,” she says. “You wouldn’t think adults could convince you in a role playing session that they’re children, but it’s realistic and it helps the participants get a feel for how those conversations flow.”


Training camp

When new child welfare case workers In South Carolina start their jobs, one of their first stops is the Center for Child and Family Studies at Carolina.

The center, part of the College of Social Work, conducts nearly nonstop training that includes leadership and development sessions for agency directors at the county level.

“We also facilitate an advisory board, made up of adolescents in foster care, who speak to DSS staff on what it’s like to be in foster care,” says center director Cynthia Flynn. “It’s way to keep things real, hearing from the children we’re committed to serve and protect.”

As part of a federal mandate, the center has surveyed foster care youth, ages 17, 19 and 21, to determine their status. A segment of that population is doing well, but as a whole they have high school graduation rates well below the norm, Flynn says. Some are in college; some are homeless.

"We’re still analyzing the data and will share it with DSS,” she says. “These are kids who have been or were in foster care for years, and as a state we’re getting away from that.”

We also facilitate an advisory board, made up of adolescents in foster care, who speak to DSS staff on what it’s like to be in foster care. It’s way to keep things real, hearing from the children we’re committed to serve and protect.

Cynthia Flynn, dircector of the Center for Child and Family Studies at Carolina


When parents need help

From her first experiences with child protective services as an undergraduate social work major, Kristen Seay was drawn to vulnerable children and their families. After earning an M.S.W., she was a caseworker in Georgia and Alabama and saw firsthand the devastating effects that parental substance abuse can wreak.

“It’s a very hard job, but every day you’re trying to make progress at a really pivotal point in the parents’ lives,” Seay says. “They could either continue to experience a lot of trauma or they could make a pivot and change their lives — and that’s very rewarding when it happens.”

Frustrated that there were not better options for helping parents with substance abuse issues, Seay returned to college to earn a Ph.D. in social work. Now an assistant professor in the university’s College of Social Work, she’s working with the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services and DSS and establishing a research program to better understand family populations affected by substance abuse.

“As long as we have poverty and trauma in society, we’ll always have some level of child abuse and substance abuse, but we can provide evidence-based treatment that works,” Seay says. “There is basic information that we don’t know yet — questions about prevention, when we can best help, and how we can enhance evidence-based treatment. That’s the next step in my research — answering those questions before applying interventions.”


Leaving on a jet plane

With Elyse’s 18th birthday looming, the Cold Case staff had to move fast.

Working with DSS  staff, the team presented her case to a family court judge who gave them one month to come up with a plan. They reached out to Elyse’s older sister, who had aged out of foster care herself, to see if she could help find a way to get Elyse back home safely.

One option was for her sister to take custody of Elyse. The sister was doing reasonably well: she had a job, a place to live in public housing and, most importantly, she clearly cared about Elyse. But, as a former foster youth who had aged out of foster care, her sister was encountering a number of challenges as she transitioned to adulthood. 

“We hit wall after wall in trying to arrange for Elyse to leave South Carolina, join her sister and get some measure of support when she got there,” Church says. “I was losing sleep over this case and just kept making phone calls.”

In the end, Church was able to organize a number of supports for Elyse when she arrived in her home state, including convincing a case manager at Casey Family Programs to take her on as a client. The family court judge OK’d a plan for Elyse’s sister to fly to Columbia and accompany Elyse back home.

“They met at the Columbia airport — the first time they’d seen each other in six years — and flew back together a few days later,” Church says.

Elyse and Church still keep in contact with each other. “She tells me about her day, which includes going to church with her grandparents, walking around the park in her community, and going to school.” 

Elyse has been through a lot since she has returned to her hometown, including things that child welfare systems would define as failures such as incarceration, instability in her living situation and periods of family violence. 

“These events are particularly dangerous given Elyse’s vulnerability resulting from her cognitive limitations,” Church says.

Still, Church counts Elyse’s story as a success. “Our system goal is to prevent emancipation — aging out of the foster care system — and finding safe and stable families for these children,” he says. “And I have to be honest, we didn’t achieve that by her 18th birthday, and we are struggling to achieve that now.

“But did things improve for her? Absolutely. Are there a group of committed adults both here and in her hometown who are committed to ensuring her safety and wellbeing while we figure out the best way for her to live in the community and be connected to family? There are, and that’s a measure of success that alleviates my concerns that ordinarily would grow from her encountering all those other hurdles. That’s success tethered to reality.”

Cold Case and DSS work with “complex families with complex problems,” Church says, and “when we take on the coldest cases with near-zero chance of what our system would measures as success, it is important to consider whether we are helping these families achieve their own version of success.” 

The Cold Case Project has opened my eyes in a way that I have reevaluated and redesigned how Greenville DSS handles child welfare cases, both on the front end and for those children currently in care. 

Keith Frazier, director of Region 1

The Cold Case Project is designed to partner with DSS to prevent children from aging out of foster care. The good news? The number of adolescents aging out of foster care in South Carolina is at an all-time low — only four percent of all children exiting foster care are discharged without being part of a family.

“The Cold Case Project has opened my eyes in a way that I have reevaluated and redesigned how Greenville DSS handles child welfare cases, both on the front end and for those children currently in care,” says Keith Frazier, formerly the Greenville County DSS director and now the agency’s Region 1 director.

“I learned so much about how some cases were slipping through the cracks and how I could use that knowledge to develop a strong protocol and process that can focus on family finding to promote permanency for all children in foster care, particularly those identified as least likely to achieve it.”

Moving forward, Cold Case continues to evaluate files on foster children and sometimes encounters pleasant surprises.

“Of the 20 ‘cold case’ files we had started looking at in Florence County, four of them turned out to be resolved already by DSS caseworkers — three of the children had been reunited with family members and one was adopted,” Church says. “So the system is working better. There was a time when it was considered OK for 10 percent of the foster care population to age out, but that’s no longer the sentiment. We’re aiming for zero percent.”