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DSS director outlines various problems, from a lack of computers to unsafe conditions

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The director of the Department of Social Services indicated Monday that it will take a lot more money to fix the agency's woes.

Director Susan Alford outlined to senators an agency with overworked, underpaid employees who still operate mostly with pen and paper in offices where they don't feel safe.

Alford took the helm of the troubled agency in February. The previous director resigned in June 2014 on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate, following hearings that focused on children's deaths and high caseloads.

Alford noted employees who handle child abuse and neglect cases also are responsible for cases involving vulnerable adults, adding to their workload.

"We've spread ourselves so thin across the department," a complete overhaul is needed, she told the Senate panel that began investigating the agency in January 2014.

The Legislature provided money in this year's budget to hire 262 employees, about 180 of them specifically for child protective services.

As of Aug. 14, 130 caseworkers statewide were responsible for at least 50 children — more than double the caseload goals set last year. Ten employees were responsible for at least 100 children, according to DSS data.

Alford said it will be six more months before employees see significant caseload relief, as hiring and training will take time.

But those hires still won't be enough, she said.

She pointed to a 41 percent increase in cases since January among 20 counties that have regionalized call centers. That's where caseloads are highest.

Alford said she put a hold on regionalizing any more counties until the agency can boost its ranks.

The additional investigations are partly due to more people getting someone on the phone to report suspected abuse. The 20 counties experienced a 25 percent increase in calls.

"We just weren't picking up," Alford said, adding that the uniform training on how to screen calls also meant more led to investigations. "That's what you want, but we were understaffed to begin with."

Sen. Katrina Shealy questioned how long it will take before the other 26 counties regionalize calls. Alford said there's no set date.

"That means there are children or adults we're overlooking," said Shealy, R-Lexington. "We're calling it a call, but it's really a child. That's something that's not getting reported about a child."

Alford said the agency's hampered by a lack of technology that creates more work for employees.

"We're mostly paper-driven," she said. "It's very frustrating to work in that kind of a system. The information most agencies can get at the touch of a button, we have to look at paper-and-pen case files."

Alford, who's visited 24 county offices since taking over, also noted many are cramped and unsafe, adding to the low morale and high turnover. Employees must walk to their vehicles in unlighted parking areas, where many have been broken into or stolen altogether, she said.

"There are a lot of angry people who come in DSS offices," Alford said.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, said he's thankful to have someone at the agency's helm who's accessible and honest about the problems, and what it will take to fix them.

Her testimony "speaks to the complete disarray and chaos the agency was in when she took over," he said. "She inherited a nightmare. She's got fires burning all over the place. ... She can't do this on her own. We're not going to fix it overnight, but we're making progress."

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