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Haley’s pick to lead DSS says improvements will take years

COLUMBIA (AP) — Gov. Nikki Haley’s pick to lead South Carolina’s Department of Social Services told lawmakers Wednesday that she wants to see firsthand the challenges faced by caseworkers throughout the state.

But, in the first of several confirmation hearings, Susan Alford also said it will take years to make substantive changes at the troubled agency.

“I don’t have magic dust,” Alford told the Senate General Committee.

A year’s worth of bipartisan Senate hearings investigating the agency’s problems focused on child deaths, excessive caseloads and turnover. In October, the agency released an improvement plan that included adding 221 child welfare positions this fiscal year.

On Wednesday, Alford said she wants to visit each county, assess its needs and hear why caseworkers leave the agency. Saying that she viewed caseload and employee turnover as two of the agency’s biggest problems, Alford told senators that she’d combat both by using her experience in probing the department’s “ground game” in the county-level offices.

“Unfortunately, what a lot of people try to do is just Band-Aid and treat symptoms,” Alford said. “It’s not enough to just drive caseload numbers down.”

Alford, 60, of Irmo, has been the director of The Girls Center at Clemson University since 2007, a research hub for issues like teen pregnancy and poor self-esteem in an effort to prevent girls from becoming dependent, arrested or victims of abuse. Alford was previously at the Department of Juvenile Justice for more than a dozen years in various director roles and served as a director at the state’s probation and parole agency.

Haley picked Alford to replace Lillian Koller, who resigned last year amid bipartisan calls for her ouster. Haley had refused for months to fire Koller, dismissing the criticism as election-year politics. But Koller resigned a day before the Senate was expected to take up a no-confidence vote on her leadership.

In her first year as director, Alford said she would plan to spend at least one full day visiting each of the state’s 46 counties, meeting local law enforcement, solicitors, guardians and caseworkers to get a sense of that area’s situation when it comes to caring for children.

But Alford warned lawmakers not to levy criticism if they don’t see drastic improvements in the next year or two.

Senators said they would schedule a second hearing to get more information. If approved at the committee level, Alford’s nomination will ultimately go to the full Senate for a vote.

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