Susan Alford, director of the S.C. Department of Social Services, told a state Senate panel Monday that it will take a lot more money to fix the agency’s many problems. With the welfare of hundreds of children at stake, the Legislature needs to give her the money she needs to repair what amounts to a broken agency.
Alford was outlining the challenges facing the DSS to members of a Senate committee that began investigating the agency in January 2014. While senators lauded Alford for her candor, they could not have been pleased by what she told them.
Despite funding from the Legislature for 262 new employees, caseloads for employees still are backbreaking, and Alford said it will be at least six more months before the agency sees significant caseload relief. Even as new hires finish their training and begin to take on cases, the number of cases continues to skyrocket.
Alford pointed to a 41 percent increase in cases since January among 20 counties that have regionalized call centers. Those counties have the highest caseloads.
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Sadly, the rise in caseloads is largely the result of increased efficiency since Alford took over DSS last year. The number of caseloads rose significantly after the agency adopted its new regional system of evaluating reports of abuse to the DSS.
In April, agency officials reported that the number of children in foster care in the state had climbed to 4,000 after dipping to nearly 3,000 two years ago. This was due in large part to the regional intake system that provides better screening for abuse reports to DSS than the old county-based system.
Even with an influx of new employees, DSS workers still are shouldering huge caseloads. As of Aug. 14, Alford told senators, 130 caseworkers statewide each were responsible for at least 50 children – more than double the caseload goals set last year.
Ten employees each were responsible for at least 100 children, according to agency data.
And the work environment for most DSS employees is primitive and sometimes also dangerous. The DSS lacks the technology for electronic record-keeping, so employees must resort to using paper records, something almost unheard of in state agencies.
“The information most agencies can get at the touch of a button, we have to look at paper-and-pen case files,” said Alford.
Many offices also are cramped and unsafe, she said, with little security to screen angry clients. Some employees must use unlighted parking lots where their cars are broken into or stolen.
And the terrible working conditions lead to morale problems, exacerbating a turnover problem that already is bad.
The problems at DSS increased significantly under the leadership of Lillian Koller, who resigned under pressure last year after nearly four years with the agency. Koller had tried to deal with budget shortfalls in part by to fully investigating cases reported to the agency and by not hiring new caseworkers to replace those who left.
Alford, to her credit, disdains that approach and makes no bones about the scope of the problems facing her agency. But to deal with those problems, she needs the moral and financial support of the Legislature.
Lawmakers need to provide the money to hire and train more caseworkers and recruit more foster parents. They need to provide money to upgrade technology and improve overall working conditions at DSS offices.
The DSS is entrusted with protecting the most vulnerable children in the state. As Alford makes clear, the agency currently lacks the means to do that job properly.
That’s a disgrace. The Legislature needs to find the money the DSS needs to fulfill its vital mission.
What do you think?
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