SC mom fights to get son with special needs care from state agency under fire

Audit finds list of problems at SC Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
Doctors said Jack couldn’t go back to the facility because of the ongoing abuse. Jack couldn’t go home with his mom because Beth couldn’t care for him.
Published: Jul. 14, 2023 at 10:09 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTV) – Seventeen-year-old Jack Hodges is a happy kid. He likes watching TV and playing games. He loves his mother.

These days he spends a lot of time at home with his mom, Beth Hodges, and an in-home caregiver.

Jack is non-verbal and has autism. He spent much of the past few years living in a group home under the supervision of the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

His mother says his first years at the facility were good. But that changed a little more than a year ago, when he started suffering a string of injuries. He made repeated visits to the hospital, with a broken collarbone, an infection on his leg, a bite on his finger, among other injuries.

His last stay in the hospital stretched weeks. Doctors said he couldn’t go back to the facility because of the ongoing abuse. He couldn’t go home with his mom because Beth – a single mother – couldn’t care for her son on her own.

So he sat in a Charlotte emergency room until Beth could convince the state to give her the help she needed to care for her son.

Kimberly Tissot, president of Able South Carolina, helped Beth fight to get her son care.

“This is an issue,” Tissot said of the lack of care readily available for Jack.

“There are a lot more Jacks in the community as well,” Tissot continued. “Jack is not the only one who has experienced such difficulty with getting services.”

There are a number of agencies in South Carolina that play a role in making sure someone like Jack has the care he needs. But the primary state agency is DDSN.

The agency, which is governed by a board of appointed commissioners, is under fire.

An audit by the South Carolina Legislative Audit Council in March found a list of issues with the agency.

“The current Commission has overreached in its role, may have violated state law, and has exhibited inappropriate behavior,” the audit council’s report found.

A list of problems in the report include the following:

-Commissioners allows “certain Commissioners to micromanage the agency when there is a competent director in place”

-Commission “spends money frivolously for items solely for the Commissioners, such as separate logo from the agency’s new logo, new conference room chairs, frames for Commissioners’ pictures, and soundproofing three conference rooms, one of which is used for public meetings.”

-Commission “expends much more in per diem and travel reimbursements than in years past”

-”Has members who use their positions as Commissioners to access information or acquire assistance for their own family members.”

The Legislative Audit Council has said its investigation into the agency continues.

But the March report was enough for a top South Carolina senator to move to tear the agency down and rebuild it.

Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington County), who chairs the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee, authored a bill this year that would move the agency under the governor.

“The only way that we’re going to help people with disabilities and special needs is to get rid of that Commission, put somebody in charge of disabilities and special needs and make them accountable,” Shealy said. “Because there is no accountability right now.”

In an interview with WBTV, Shealy called the state of services for people with special needs in South Carolina as “dismal.”

Shealy’s bill to change how the agency is managed easily passed the Senate but is stalled in the statehouse. The senator said the path forward is clear if things don’t change.

“We’re going to continue to not serve the people of South Carolina, and it’s only going to get worse,” Shealy said.

In a statement, DDSN Interim Director Constance Holloway said she could not comment on the findings of the audit report but downplayed its findings.

“To be clear, this report focused on agency structure and governance; it did not focus on the services we provide in conjunction with our providers,” Holloway’s statement said.

“DDSN remains committed to the safe and quality care of those who rely on our services,” Holloway’s statement continued. “We appreciate our providers for their service, as well as the families who voice concerns so we can continuously improve service delivery in South Carolina.”

Beth Hodges was stunned to hear the agency was defending its record of supporting families.

She had to fight to get the in-home help she needed to bring her son Jack home to live with her. While she fought, he stayed in a hospital emergency room, which was ill equipped to care for him.

“Jack, to them, I think, is a number and a case and not a person,” Hodges said. “Otherwise, someone would have paid more attention sooner.”