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Senators tell DSS to hire caseworkers to stem crisis

COLUMBIA (AP) — South Carolina’s Department of Social Services must hire more caseworkers now to stem a child welfare crisis, not wait until legislators pass a budget next year, state senators told agency officials Tuesday.

The Senate panel investigating DSS directed the acting director to create a plan within two weeks for getting certified and trained caseworkers on the job as soon as possible. South Carolina’s vulnerable children can’t wait for a budget process that creates a two-year delay, said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia.

“We are in crisis mode,” Lourie said. “We’ve not improved caseloads at all. This is an inferno blowing out of control.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the panel’s ninth since January. Acting director Amber Gillum had intended to discuss the agency’s improvement efforts since Lillian Koller resigned in June amid escalating, bipartisan calls for her ouster. That included a plan to seek $10 million in the 2015-16 budget for 202 employees, including 81 supervisors.

Senators pounced on data from the agency showing just five additional county-level employees working child welfare cases, compared to May, despite the panel’s focus on the issue and the agency saying it had hired dozens of additional caseworkers.

Deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter cautioned that the numbers don’t reflect people in training or not yet assigned a case. But she acknowledged that job turnover has been a problem. The agency says it wants to raise caseworkers’ salaries and create advancement opportunities that don’t require becoming a supervisor.

The agency also says it needs 109 caseworkers to meet its goal of 24 children per worker for most types of cases and a 20:1 ratio for foster care cases.

Senators asked Gillum to determine how much money the agency has in reserves that can use to hire immediately. The Cabinet agency could also ask the Budget and Control Board — headed by Gillum’s boss, Gov. Nikki Haley — for an emergency loan.

In at least three counties child welfare caseloads continue to top 100 children for some employees. Those are Aiken, Lexington and Richland, where the panelists live.

“How in the hell can anybody manage that kind of caseload?” Lourie asked. “All they’re doing is moving paperwork. The problem is on the front line. I’m appalled at the data.”

He predicted that “there will be more tragedies.”

Last week, authorities revealed that a Lexington County father confessed to killing his five children and then dumping their bodies in Alabama. Social workers visited the family a dozen times over the past three years to investigate abuse accusations but never found anything serious enough to take the children away, according to documents DSS released Thursday.

Previous hearings have focused on the deaths of children in Richland and Charleston counties.

The panelists did not question DSS officials on the Lexington County case. Chairman Tom Young, R-Aiken, said they agreed to honor requests by law enforcement, including State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, to stay away from the issue while the investigation is ongoing.

Lourie said the turnover numbers point to part of the problem. DSS spreadsheets suggest 30 percent of employees currently working Lexington County cases were not on the job in May. The turnover appears to be worse in Richland County, which Haley said in May was under a corrective plan that included hiring more people.

Koller had insisted that caseworkers were responsible on average for six cases, and the agency did not need more staff. The claim infuriated senators who said it didn’t match agency data or complaints they heard from constituents. Asked to explain the inconsistencies, Gillum said only that she couldn’t speak to the former director’s actions.

Haley, who had repeatedly backed Koller, accepted the director’s resignation just before senators planned to take up a no-confidence resolution.

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