COLUMBIA — The embattled leader of Gov. Nikki Haley’s child-welfare agency resigned Monday, saying her role as the Department of Social Services director had become a “distraction.”
Lillian Koller’s resignation came a day before state senators were expected to bring to the floor a no-confidence vote in her leadership.
Haley, who has supported Koller during months of criticism about child deaths, continued to defend her Monday, citing her Cabinet director’s commitment to helping children.
"Today, as she has every day since coming to South Carolina, Lillian has put the well-being of the children of our state above her own,” Haley said in a statement. “We have been lucky to have her, and I will continue to be proud of Lillian, the work she's done at DSS, and most of all, that I can call her my friend.”
Amber Gillum, the agency’s deputy state director for economic services, will act as interim director until Haley makes an appointment to the Cabinet post. Gillum has been at Social Services since 2011. Her annual salary will remain $119,500. Koller’s salary was $154,900.
Koller's resignation follows months of hearings before a state Senate panel investigating claims that Social Services missed abuse cases involving children who later died. Reports of workers’ high case loads also have drawn rebuke.
Koller was expected to testify a third time Wednesday but no longer will, said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, the panel's chairman. No one else from the agency will appear in her place, he added.
Young had asked Koller to appear to discuss new data the panel has received. Those statistics showed some caseworkers were responsible for more than 40 cases and more than 90 children in a single month, he said.
"That's very troubling," said Young, who -- unlike some senators -- had not called for Koller's dismissal. The Senate panel will hold additional hearings before making its recommendations later this year, he said. "Now that (Koller) resigned, that does not mean our subcommittee doesn't have questions about the data."
Koller is the fourth member of Haley's cabinet to resign amid trouble or questioning from state lawmakers.
• Robert St. Onge resigned earlier this year from the Department of Transportation after a drunken-driving incident.
• Abraham Turner resigned in 2013 from the state Department of Employment and Workforce after lawmakers questioned that agency’s elimination of some rural services.
• Jim Etter resigned in 2012 from the Department of Revenue after a hacker stole information belonging to millions of S.C. taxpayers.
In her letter of resignation, which was effective immediately, Koller did not concede any shortcomings.
Instead, she wrote, “It has become more and more apparent to me during the past few weeks that my being the State Director is causing a distraction and making it more difficult for DSS to continue the measurable improvements made to the Agency during my tenure that have improved the lives of the citizens we serve.”
In a statement, Haley praised Koller: "Under her leadership, DSS closed a $28 million deficit, moved more than 20,000 South Carolinians from welfare-to-work, and has done wonders to improve our foster care system, placing more South Carolina children in stable, healthy families."
The Haley Administration’s operation of the child-welfare agency has become a central issue in November’s race for governor.
In his first TV ad, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley’s Democratic challenger, criticized the governor’s management of the agency. The agency also is why petition candidate Tom Ervin, a Greenville attorney, and former judge and House member, decided to run for governor.
Sheheen said Monday a leadership change should have been made more quickly at Social Services. "The governor should have been aware of how serious these problems were a long time ago. ... It should not take years to realize an agency is in crisis."
Two state senators who were among the first to call for Koller's removal said Monday that her decision to step down is a good start but Social Services needs more changes.
“I don't believe that everything that was wrong at the Department of Social Services was Director Koller’s fault,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, a member of a Senate panel investigating the agency.
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, called Koller's resignation "long overdue," adding he hopes the agency’s interim leadership will bring clarity to how it is operating. "Bring us the facts however bad they may be," Lourie said in a conference call with media Monday.
Both Shealy and Lourie said accurate statistics about the agency have not been forthcoming.
"We've been asking questions and getting different answers every time," Shealy said, adding she hopes Social Services employees will speak up. "I hope that people feel like they can be honest and not threatened. I hope they can come forward and do things that will make the agency better."