Gov. Nikki Haley has picked the next director of South Carolina’s embattled Department of Social Services — even as lawmakers debate whether to break up the child services agency.
During an introductory press briefing Monday, Haley revealed her choice of Susan Alford to lead the agency tasked with child services and public family benefits. Alford replaces previous director Lillian Koller, who stepped down in June after criticism over how the agency handled abuse and neglect investigations that ended with several children dying.
Alford has led the Girls Center, part of the Youth Learning Institute outreach program at Clemson University, since 2007. The center’s website states that it helps “children, youth, families, and individuals of all ages to improve their health and wellbeing (sic) through research and education.” Prior to that she was an executive at South Carolina’s teen detention agency Department of Juvenile Justice during Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration.
Alford said she could think of no mission more important than at DSS. “We have to work with all of DSS’s stakeholders and that includes everybody,” she told reporters during Monday’s press conference. “From the state to the county, county leaders, the legislature, law enforcement, the judiciary, child advocates everywhere, nonprofits, we all have to be part of the solution.”
The announcement comes as state senators wrap up their year-long look into problems at DSS. Two members of the Senate panel handling the review are supporting a proposal that would split up the agency into narrower responsibilities. The proposal by State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, would abolish DSS and create a new agency that would handle child protective services, child abuse investigations, foster families and adoption. Other functions at DSS, including food stamps and other family welfare programs, would be placed under the existing Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
When asked if she supported the idea, Haley deferred. The governor said it is “too soon” for her office to weigh in, “but we’re not necessarily opposed to it. I think we’re still trying to just look at… how do you split it? You just don’t want to leave anything short.”
The governor said Acting Director Amber Gillum, who has led DSS for the past six months, will remain at the agency to assist Alford. The new director will take over on January 5. Her nomination must be confirmed by the state Senate when they return to session the following week.
Haley praised Gillum for guiding a new DSS plan to reduce employee workloads, hire more caseworkers, and revamp how the agency handles initial abuse allegations. The governor admitted that her Cabinet agency had experienced a rough year, but credited Gillum with keeping a cool head.
“What we’ve seen the last few months… is a lot of chaos… I don’t know that there’s any other way to say it,” the governor said.