40 percent of SC child welfare workers bear heavy caseloads

jself@thestate.comJune 29, 2014 

— Child-welfare workers in the Midlands bear some of the highest caseloads in the state – with one Lexington County worker managing 48 cases and 103 children at one time.

The Midlands caseworkers are not alone, according to a review by The State of May 21 caseloads for every S.C. child-welfare caseworker.

About 40 percent of child-welfare workers across South Carolina – including two-thirds of the workers in Kershaw County, more in half in Lexington and 43 percent in Richland County – try to handle more than the 17 cases at any one time that national experts recommend.

That work load is far higher than the one portrayed to a state Senate panel investigating the state Department of Social Services earlier this year.

The agency’s then-director, Lillian Koller, told a state Senate panel that Social Services caseworkers manage, on average, six to seven cases. Koller later acknowledged that average — while accurate — was misleading, including some staffers who only manage one case at a time.

Questions about those caseloads are driving an ongoing investigation into Social Services by a state Senate panel. Child-welfare advocates charge the agency has missed cases of abuse and neglect that led to children dying.

Those concerns are justified, according to Social Services’ own internal evaluations of child-welfare services in South Carolina’s 46 counties.

The State reviewed those evaluations and found that in 25 of 46 counties – including Lexington and Richland – investigations of alleged child abuse were more likely than not to be closed in violation of the agency’s own policies.

In some instances, Social Service found, cases were so poorly documented that it was unclear whether the alleged abuse happened.

Other cases included documented evidence of abuse.

But the cases were closed anyway.

‘They just don’t have the time’

Jessica Hanak-Coulter, a Social Services deputy director, said the agency is moving forward with a plan to reduce caseloads.

The department also wants to evaluate all 46 county child-welfare offices this year to improve training, support for staff and oversight of child-welfare services. Those evaluations now are required every five years.

The agency also is hiring. The General Assembly approved 50 new child-welfare positions in the state budget that takes effect Tuesday.

Those changes – and more caseworkers – desperately are needed, child-welfare advocates say.

Making the wrong call on a possible abuse cases is a result of high caseloads, said Carla Damron, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers in South Carolina.

“You work the hours that you have to work to do your job, and the burnout rate is huge,” said Damron, who said she has received calls from Social Services case workers who say their workloads are too high.

“What I'm hearing is that they just don't have the time and resources to take care of the kids that were put in their care,” Damron said. “When you have a really large caseload, you deal with a pot that's boiling or you deal with the one that’s on fire.”

Questions about caseloads

Driving questions about whether the state’s child-welfare agency is doing enough to protect children are stories of children dying after contact with Social Services.

Some of those children were from Richland County, the home county of the state agency’s loudest critics. The children include Robert Guinyard, a 4-year-old autistic boy who was fatally beaten in his home, and Bryson Webb, a 5-month-old who died in the back of a car several weeks after Social Services had been tipped off that he was in danger. Social Services said it was unable to locate Bryson after being warned.

The Richland Social Services office now is the subject of a state intervention with help from Wilbert Lewis. Lewis retired after 35 years at Social Services but returned to the agency, at its request, to lead a state takeover of the Richland child-welfare office, where, he said, a team of outside caseworkers now is helping meet demands.

That intervention appears to be producing results, said Paige Greene, executive director of Richland County CASA, a nonprofit that provides children with court-appointed advocates.

In May, Paige said her agency had 110 new children accepted for new services from Social Services, more than she recalls ever having in a single month. That increase, she said, likely was the result of Richland Social Services getting extra help and opening cases that previously had been put on hold.

Senators reviewing the agency want to know why caseloads are so high.

They asked Koller to explain the caseload numbers at a hearing set for earlier this month. But Koller, an appointee of Gov. Nikki Haley, resigned two days before she was scheduled to testify about those caseloads.

The next hearing of the Senate panel is scheduled for July 23.

The senators – Tom Young, R-Aiken; Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington; and Joel Lourie, D-Richland – said they were frustrated the agency initially reported caseload averages of six and seven per worker, only to find that, for many workers, caseloads were many times higher, reaching 40 or more cases per worker involving more than 100 children.

The State reviewed caseload statistics, finding the average of six or seven cases per worker is accurate.

But that six or seven cases per worker average includes supervisors and workers in training who may have only one case at a time to deal with, Hanak-Coulter of Social Services said. That lower workload is far from typical, she added.

Instead, of 705 caseworkers statewide reviewed by The State, nearly three-quarters had more than seven cases.

‘Going to need more staff’

The Child Welfare League of America says a caseworker should have to manage no more than 17 active families.

The recommended limits are lower for some cases: 12 families for initial investigations of alleged child abuse and 15 children for foster-care cases.

Social Services says it is finalizing its own child-welfare caseload limits and hopes to have them in place by June 30, Hanak-Coulter said.

Under the proposed caseload limits, workers who screen alleged abuse cases and conduct initial assessments and investigations would have 10 to 16 families ideally but never more than 20 families.

Workers handling ongoing cases, where workers help families address issues, would have 14 to 20 families but never more than 26 families. Foster-care workers would have 14 to 20 children in their caseload but never more than 26 children.

While national organizations, including the Child Welfare League, have set recommendations for caseloads, no set of standards universally are accepted across states. That is because of the differences in the ways child-welfare systems are structured from state to state, Social Services officials said.

Hanak-Coulter said the S.C. agency came up with its own caseload standards after studying how long it takes its caseworkers to work cases. That review included looking at performance data, interviews with caseworkers and performance coaches, and taking into account the complexity of the different types of cases, she said.

Based on the May 21 caseload statistics, 25 percent of S.C. caseworkers have 10 to 17 cases to manage. But about 40 percent of caseworkers have 17 to 48 cases, far above the number recommended by national child-welfare advocates.

Caseloads in Lexington County were among the highest in the state, according to May 21 data provided to The State.

Out of 705 caseworkers reviewed, five from Lexington made the state’s top 10 for the highest caseload per worker – shouldering between 41 and 48 cases apiece. One caseworker was responsible for 106 children.

Heavy caseloads have been an ongoing problem at Social Services statewide, said Lewis, the retired caseworker recently called back to duty.

Those caseload levels did not get out-of-hand overnight, Lewis added. Instead, they came as the result of cuts to staffing over time.

To address the problem, Social Services is “going to need more staff,” he said, adding high caseloads are only one factor impacting whether workloads are manageable. How far a caseworker has to drive to reach a child or a family is another of many factors to consider, Lewis said.

But both Lewis and CASA’s Greene said the new standards proposed by Social Services are appropriate, and would help caseworkers manage their work and provide better services to families.

‘Really dangerous mistakes’

Hanak-Coulter said Social Services is working on completing performance reviews of all 46 counties to fast-track improvements to training provided to caseworkers and their supervisors.

One part of the evaluation looks at whether county agencies are following state policies in determining whether evidence exists to substantiate alleged cases of abuse or neglect.

In more than half of South Carolina’s counties, those policies have been ignored, according to Social Services evaluations.

According to a review by The State of each county’s most recent evaluation, Social Services offices in 25 of 46 counties more likely than not acted against state policy in closing investigations of abuse or neglect. The review looked at five randomly selected cases that had been closed in each county.

Some of the cases reviewed – including all five reviewed in Richland County – were closed against agency policy after workers failed to document the case adequately, determine the risks to children, make timely contact with children, or investigate parents and caregivers.

In other incidents, cases were closed despite evidence that abuse might be occurring.

For example, following the death of a two-month-old in McCormick County, a case was opened and closed before an autopsy report despite the family having an “extensive history” with Social Services. The mother had a history of substance abuse, physical violence and “had stated that she was going to kill her children,” a subsequent state review found.

In Greenwood, a case alleging sexual abuse was closed without the child having a forensic interview.

In Lexington, a child said her father punched her in the face. The agency only made one contact with the father, who said it was an accident. He was punishing her, and she fell to her knees and he hit her, he said.

“I can imagine how that happens if you have such a huge caseload,” said Damron with the National Association of Social Workers, referring to cases closed despite evidence of abuse. “Those are really dangerous mistakes.”

‘Because we care’

Lewis, who is now working to bail out the Richland County Social Services office, said he recently asked a child-welfare caseworker why she continued to come to work every day, despite heavy caseloads and questions about her office’s ability to protect vulnerable children.

Her response? “Because we care,” said Lewis.

The caseworker knows that she will “face great challenges, but that inner personal drive, almost like a calling, has her coming back every day doing the best she can with the resources she's been given,” Lewis said.

When bad things happen to children in the care of Social Services, caseworkers feel “devastated,” he added.

“You're always going to question yourself, not just in child-death cases, but in your day-to-day work, you will constantly second- guess yourself.

“Sometimes, you go home and you can't leave it at the door.”

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