Stephanie Madison was 18 years old, a high school student in Lexington County, when the workers from the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs came to see her. Stephanie was intellectually handicapped, with the mental and emotional development of a 10-year-old.

According to her mother, Brenda Bryan, the DDSN workers talked Stephanie into signing her consent to go into a group home. She was taken from the high school campus straight to the home without notifying Bryan. Bryan said it was several weeks before DDSN even told her where her daughter was. When she challenged DDSN’s authority in the matter, she said the agency replied that Stephanie was of the age of consent and she had freely signed the agreement to go into the home.

That was in 1993, and Bryan has been fighting for custody of her daughter ever since. In those 16 years she has met other families who have had similar experiences with DDSN, the $470 million agency, which cares for 28,000 people with mental retardation, autism, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury. Together these families have painted a nightmarish picture of what appears to be an agency out of control, in which clients have allegedly been beaten, scalded, even gang raped by staff. (Only two weeks ago a former DDSN employee was charged with hitting a client multiple times with a belt, according to The Post and Courier.)

For years these families were crying in the wilderness, unheard by state officials or the mainstream media. One crusading newspaperman, Jerry Bellune of the weekly Lexington County Chronicle, ran a series of stories on the alleged DDSN abuses and gave the families hope. Finally, the families caught the attention of Sen. David Thomas (R-Greenville), who requested the Legislative Audit Council look into the rogue agency.

The LAC’s report came back in December, and it was scathing, recommending 66 changes in agency policy and structure. Among the audit findings were conflicts of interest, mismanagement of money, unresponsiveness to clients, and intimidation of family members who tried to complain. More will surely be coming out in the weeks to come, now that the major newspapers in the state have gotten a taste of the story. Gov. Mark Sanford got into the act on Feb. 19, when he fired four of the seven DDSN commissioners. A week later, DDSN director Stan Butkus announced his resignation and left on the same day.

There is good reason to hope that this dark, Stalinesque agency may soon be cleaned up and made transparent and responsible to its clients and their families. But there is a question many people will still be asking long after this sordid story is closed: Why has it taken years for state leaders and auditors to give this matter a second look?

There are probably many reasons, some of them locked deep in the DNA of South Carolina governance. But this is my theory: For decades America has been subjected to the sight of its politicians standing up to proclaim, “I hate government! Vote for me!” Government, we have been told, is the problem, not the solution.

We have seen reckless demagogues promise to slash government agencies and services to the bone, claiming to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, when they were actually eliminating the management, talent, and oversight any agency needs to succeed in its mission.

In the past decade, we have begun to reap the harvest of this folly. We have seen a Food and Drug Administration that cannot protect us from salmonella, e. coli, and other public health hazards. We have seen a Securities and Exchange Commission that looked the other way as rogue bankers and traders drove the U.S. economy over a cliff. In 2005, we saw the Federal Emergency Management Administration utterly flat-footed and clueless as the levees broke and New Orleans filled with water.

“You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie,” President George W. Bush told FEMA director Michael Brown before the magnitude of the disaster and the director’s incompetence became fully known. A few days later Brown was forced to resign, but the damage was done and much of it can never be undone.

There is a role for honest and competent government in our society. Hubert Humphrey said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

To look at South Carolina’s educational system, Medicaid, and Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, it is obvious that government has failed us. But it will always fail when it is in the hands of those who want it to fail.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.