Its caseloads falling but turnover still high, South Carolina’s child-welfare agency says it needs an added $18 million to improve the state’s child-safety net.
Most of that money would pay for more than 250 new workers in the Department of Social Services’ child-welfare division, including 163 caseworkers to lower caseloads.
Caseloads and turnover reached staggeringly high rates in 2013, prompting outcry from child advocates and a leadership change at Social Services. Those numbers have fallen but the agency has more work to do, leaders and lawmakers said Thursday.
If hired, the new caseworkers should reduce caseloads to no more than 24 per caseworker handling family preservation and child-abuse assessment cases, and no more than 20 per foster-care caseworker, agency director Susan Alford told a Senate panel Thursday. Those are the limits the agency has set for itself, she added.
The agency also is requesting 23 more employees to expand statewide a system for screening calls about abuse and neglect. That system now covers 22 of the state’s 46 counties.
By the end of the year, residents statewide will have one phone number to call to report abuse and neglect anytime, day or night, Alford said.
The agency anticipates a spike in cases once the call system is open statewide. Reports and cases of abuse and neglect spiked when the system first launched, but adding new caseworkers will help manage any jump in cases, Alford said.
The agency also has requested money to hire 14 attorneys and 20 paralegals.
Some Social Services attorneys are handling more than 200 cases, the agency said in its budget request. The American Bar Association recommends child-welfare attorneys carry no more than 60 cases at a time.
Alford said the legal staff would help children find permanent homes more quickly by resolving cases that now linger in court.
Caseloads fall while turnover hovers
Alford said caseloads are improving at the agency.
As of Jan. 30, the agency had 43 caseworkers with 50 or more children to protect at one time. That number is down from 77 caseworkers in June and more than 140 a year earlier.
Turnover, however, still is high, she said.
While turnover dropped after Alford took over at the agency – falling to 27 percent in 2015 from 39 percent in 2014 – a preliminary review of 2016 shows not much change, she said.
Senate General Committee chair Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, applauded the work the agency has done to lower caseloads.
But the still-high turnover means there’s “still a problem,” she said, adding the state might need to increase the pay of child-welfare workers.
Overdue child-support system on track
Alford also said Social Services is on target to complete a federally mandated child-support enforcement system by 2019.
The system was supposed to be finished in the late 1990s. The state has been fined more than $145 million since then for failing to complete the system.
Child-welfare turnover in the Midlands
Social Services offices in Lexington and Richland counties have experienced some of the highest turnover rates in S.C. But turnover appears to be dropping, the agency says.
2014: 39 percent
2015: 45 percent
2016 (preliminary): 18 percent
2014: 104 percent
2015: 61 percent
2016 (preliminary): 57 percent