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Changes coming for S.C. group foster homes

Children fish at a group foster home in Awendaw (WCIV)

AWENDAW, S.C. (WCIV) Leadership at the state level for the Department of Social Services just shifted with Susan Alford retiring.

A new federal law and a lingering lawsuit shines a light on a vulnerable state child welfare system.

What does that mean for the 4,700 children who are in state custody now?

“There will be a revolution to the child welfare system throughout the country,” says Debbie Mckelvey, executive director for Windwood Farm Home for Children and Family Services in Awendaw.

Any revolution will directly impact the work that Mckelvey does.

She oversees a sprawling 33-year-old group foster home campus. Twenty-five children currently live at Windwood and 12 are part of the group home program.

“Unfortunately there are 4,700 children in state custody, there are not enough homes to house all of the children," she said.

So they come to Windwood instead to have some semblance of normal life, like fish, learn, feel safe when their worlds are turned upside down.

But with the passing of the new Federal Families First Prevention Services Act, group homes are considered less than desirable.

Starting October 2019, the children will have two weeks to be placed with a regular foster family. That means several foster children may be living with one family.

“Will the child be safe if he returns to the community and is the community going to be safe with the child living there? And is the family or entity taking over care of that child adequately equipped to do so?" asks Mckelvey.

She says those are the questions that need to be asked before a child moves on.

On the bright side, Mckelvey says she hopes that the Families First Act will restructure the foster care system, bringing more services to children and families.

But she asks, “Are we prepared? Where are the children going to go and on top of that when that law goes into effect, will our state be saddled with the threat of ‘if it doesn’t happen there will be a fine?”

There is also the Michelle H federal lawsuit. This class action lawsuit directly targets the group homes, particularly children under 12. With good enough intentions, it throws a shadow over the work done at the states' 50-60 group homes.

And now comes the resignation of the director who is supposed to implement all of these changes.

“When I heard the news that was what I all the thoughts going through my mind—who is going to lead us to the next step to be prepared for what is coming for families and children in need in our community?" says Mckelvey.

ABC News4 has reached out to a DSS spokesperson for comment, but have not heard back yet.

According to Mckelvey, South Carolina will have up to two years to implement the Families First Prevention Services Act.

However, that delay could result in a fine affecting community based prevention services.

She says the hope is that Windwood will qualify as a residential treatment provider.

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