Officials at South Carolina’s troubled child services agency say they need an additional 200 employees to meet a new requirement that would ease the load of overworked investigators.
The state Department of Social Services has come under heavy criticism this year after a state Senate committee’s investigations into child deaths found severe problems at the agency, including missed warning signs before child abuse deaths, strained caseworkers sometimes responsible for over 100 children, and failure to follow state law regarding the frequency of child welfare checks. Former DSS director Lillian Koller eventually resigned in June after bipartisan pressure from senators on the committee.
Deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter was back before the Senate General Committee on Wednesday. She told senators the agency has now decided to set a limit of 24 child cases its employees can handle at a time. The National Child Welfare League recommends 12 families (which may include more than one child per family) per caseworker. Hanak-Coulter said the agency will need 202 new employees, including 109 case investigators plus administrators and support staff.
“If we could do the ideal, then it would be no more than 24 children per investigator for those in the initial investigation period,” she told senators.
She said the increase (roughly 25 percent growth in its staff) would cost about $10 million, although she added about two-thirds of that could be paid for by the federal government.
Hanak-Coulter said the agency is already working to fill 50 open caseworker positions that already exist. DSS has hired 59 employees since June 1, she said. Those jobs are not included in the 202 she said the office now needs.
Meanwhile, National Association of Social Workers president Jeanne Cook told senators that child-welfare employees lack the training and qualifications of traditional social workers — and suffer from high turnover as the state frequently pays much less than private-sector positions.
State senators said they would consider and be willing to support the increase, but State Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) noted the agency has never requested additional caseworkers since Gov. Nikki Haley took office in early 2011.
“That was very frustrating for me when we were hearing from people all over the state about these caseloads and… for whatever reason, there has not been a request to add personnel,” he said during the hearing.