COLUMBIA, SC — The head of the state Department of Social Services said Wednesday that she personally will monitor the caseloads of social workers with that agency.
“There’s no question that we have workers here who have too many cases,” director Lillian Koller said after testifying before a state Senate panel investigating the agency, under fire for child deaths.
Senators said there have been multiple complaints from Social Services workers about the number of cases — up to 70 — that they are expected to handle. They asked Koller for an estimate on how many cases a worker reasonably could handle.
“It’s not just a number,” Koller responded. “It has to weigh other factors.”
Those factors include the type and complexity of cases, Koller told the panel, made up of chairman Tom Young, R-Aiken; Joel Lourie, D-Richland; and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
Koller said a draft plan includes limiting agency workers to 20 cases for initial assessments and limiting foster-care workers to overseeing 26 children. Those numbers are not definite, she said, adding they are being compared to workloads in other states.
However, Koller said she personally will get involved. She said she will receive a weekly report from every county Social Services office and call any county director who has a front-line worker with 30 or more cases.
Sens. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Billy O’Dell, R-Abbeville, joined the panel Wednesday to question Koller, questioning the training and qualifications of agency workers.
Koller said entry-level caseworkers, required to have a bachelor’s degree, start at salaries of $29,000.
“That’s something to aspire to when you’re graduating college,” Massey replied skeptically, referring to the salary.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who is seeking re-election this year, recently announced Social Services was sending 20 additional workers into its troubled Richland County operation.
Koller said those workers temporarily are assigned to Richland Social Services to prevent its operations from spiraling down. She said she expected the intervention to last no more than five months while new staffers are hired and trained for the Richland County office.
Most recently, Richland Social Services has been criticized for its role in the April 22 death of 5-month-old Bryson Webb.
The agency received a warning that Bryson’s life was in danger but could not locate the child or his parents for more than a month. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott held a news conference after the child’s death and criticized Social Services for not telling law enforcement that it could not locate Bryson’s parents.
In response, Social Services put in place a new policy to call law enforcement within 72 hours if it cannot locate a family.
Rumors also are swirling around the state agency.
For example, Lourie, who repeatedly has called for Koller’s removal, asked her Wednesday if she were aware of any investigation into the agency by the State Law Enforcement Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the U.S. attorney’s office.
Koller said she was not aware of one taking place now but would not be surprised if an investigation was launched.
Afterward, Lourie said Social Services is reacting to problems, not anticipating them, and needs to be restructured. He again said Koller is the wrong person to lead the agency and said her presence is a distraction.
Koller had said earlier the agency is being proactive but needs to do better, faster work.
She said the agency has been building up and strengthening since she was named director in 2011. “This is a very troubled agency,” Koller said. “I did not walk in with my eyes closed.”
Chairman Young said another hearing will be held in two weeks, and the committee also will meet once more after the legislative session ends next month.
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.