COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Caseloads at South Carolina's social services agency are skyrocketing as the recently appointed director of the Department of Social Services said a new evaluation system is finding more children who need help.
Fifteen percent of the state's 747 DSS caseworkers are seeing 50 children or more, which is more than double the recommended caseload of 24 children, Alford said as she presented a report Wednesday on her progress changing the agency at a Senate DSS Oversight Committee meeting.
One caseworker in Spartanburg county has 143 cases and a second sees 113 children as a new regional intake system provides more scrutiny to reports of abuse to DSS than the old county-based system, Alford said. The problem is made worse because the agency lost a staggering 40 percent of its caseworkers in 2014.
And only 16 of the state's 46 counties have been put in the new hub system, with the rest scheduled to be on board in July.
"We're getting more calls through. More people are actually successfully getting their allegations heard by our staff, and more calls are being handled," Alford said. "It's a good thing, but it is driving numbers up."
Alford said she is shifting workers from other counties to the places they are needed, at least temporarily. She has 88 caseworkers coming on board from this budget year and is asking for 177 more caseworkers next year. About 40 caseworkers are in training and should be ready to work by May, which will help the backload in the most seriously affected counties of Spartanburg, Richland and Lexington.
Senators on the committee were alarmed by the numbers but told Alford they fully support her trying to fix the damage of trying to save money by not fully investigating cases and allowing employees to leave without being replaced caused by the previous director, Lillian Koller, who resigned last summer after nearly four years with the agency.
"You inherited such a mess," said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. "We stand behind you and support you."
The committee and Alford have a much different relationship than her predecessor. Senators have spent more than a year investigating DSS, issuing a report last month with 14 different sections on how the agency failed South Carolina children.
Alford was unanimously approved as the new DSS director in February. She was careful not to criticize Koller on Wednesday, saying once she identified problems, she just wanted to fix them. Senators agreed.
"Let's not talk about it anymore," Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said of Koller's mistakes. "Let's fix it."
The decisions by the new intake system are having ripples throughout DSS. The number of children in foster care in South Carolina has reached 4,000 this year after dipping to nearly 3,000 two years ago.
"It's unbelievable the number of children that have been taken into the system within the last nine months. I've never seen it," said Carl Brown, executive director of the South Carolina Foster Parent Association.
That has combined with a decline in foster parents who have dropped out of the system after choosing to adopt children permanently in the past few years.
Senators also discussed Wednesday how DSS can recruit more foster parents, whether the amount parents get should be increased or the amount of time it takes to go through the licensing processed can be shortened.
Brown said that, along with some rules changes, simply having lawmakers and the governor come out in support of foster parents would be a big help.
"Foster care doesn't have a good image — sort of like DSS," Brown said. "People think that every foster parent is doing it for money."
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