The state’s child welfare agency has given a 10 percent raise to caseworkers who protect children, and plans to start hiring 221 new workers by Nov. 1, the agency’s leaders said Thursday.
The moves were announced the day before the Legislative Audit Council is to release its findings from a year-long investigation of the embattled state agency, which reports directly to Gov. Nikki Haley. That report includes some “shocking” discoveries, one child welfare advocate who has seen the still-secret report said Thursday.
Haley’s opponents in her November re-election bid quickly pronounced the moves “too little, too late.”
S.C. Department of Social Services acting director Amber Gillum said Thursday the $6.4 million raise-and-hiring plan is aimed at relieving workers’ heavy caseloads, which, critics say, threaten the safety of children under the agency’s care.
Social Services has been under scrutiny because of the high-profile deaths of several children that the agency was supposed to be protecting.
Hiring already is under way, Gillum said.
“We’ve initiated a pretty aggressive hiring plan,” Gillum said. “(T)here are several significant challenges (to filling the positions), and we understand the sense of urgency and share it.”
Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said the Republican governor supports the agency’s efforts to hire new caseworkers and provide competitive compensation to retain employees. The agency has come a long way, he added.
“Four years ago, DSS was facing a $28 million inherited budget deficit,” Mayer said. “Just as the governor made sure (the agency) overcame that obstacle,” Haley’s budget in 2015 “will provide the agency with the resources they need to continue making improvements and effectively responding to the at-risk children of our state.”
Until mid-year, the agency was headed by Haley appointee Lillian Koller, who did not ask for any extra caseworkers until a state Senate panel questioned workers’ high caseloads and turnover.
Two weeks ago, that Senate panel, which has been investigating the agency since January, directed the agency to fast-track its plan to hire 202 new caseworkers. The senators made that request after Social Services said in July, after Koller resigned, that the agency would need that many new workers to reduce caseloads to levels recommended by national experts.
Senators also will question the agency about the findings in the S.C. Legislative Audit Council report, being released Friday.
Social Services is paying for the plan by drawing from various grants and using Medicaid matching dollars that were supposed to go this year to state Health and Human Services Department. That agency has agreed to let Social Services hold onto the dollars for this year.
But next year, lawmakers will need to budget more money for Social Services to pay for the salary increases and new positions, according to a summary of the hiring plan given to senators Thursday.
The agency also said it expects to ask for an additional 98 caseworkers in 2015, beyond the 221 it wants to hire soon.
State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, who chairs the panel, said Thursday that he had not had a chance to study the plan in-depth. But, at first glance, the proposal appeared to be “a step in the right direction to address many of the ... caseload problems that we've heard about.”
However, two of Haley’s challengers in the Nov. 4 governor’s race blamed the Republican for not acting sooner.
"For a year, they told us, ‘Everything fine, everything is great,’ ” state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, told The State on Thursday. “Then, they said they didn't have enough money to do the things they wanted to do. Now, they magically find $6 million. ... She refuses to put forth a plan to fix the ultimate problem and instead we have these miraculous occurrences that happen whenever the crisis is so bad that the public is outraged.”
Petition candidate Tom Ervin, a former Greenville judge and lawmaker, said the hiring plan was “too little too late.”
“Unfortunately, this is an agency in crisis,” Ervin said. “We needed them (caseworkers) four years ago, when she took office."
‘Focus ... on the families’
Social Services has had a hard time hiring and hanging on to employees.
Almost one in every four caseworkers has left the agency in the past year, said Gillum, who has been leading the agency since Koller resigned in June.
From June 2 to Sept. 22, the agency hired 139 new caseworkers and supervisors in county Social Services offices. But, during that same period, 65 caseworkers left the agency.
Of the jobs the agency said Thursday it wants to fill, 171 positions will handle caseloads and 67 will be assistants to help caseworkers.
Fifty of the 221 positions the agency cited Thursday were caseworker positions OK’d by the General Assembly in this year’s state budget, which took effect July 1. Social Services has filled 17 of those positions and has 33 more candidates who are likely hires, Gillum said.
After seeing a need for more caseworkers, Gillum said she authorized 46 more openings in August. The rest of the positions will open by Nov. 1.
The raises are effective immediately and will appear on employees’ Nov. 2 paychecks, Gillum said. The pay boosts will increase a caseworker’s starting salary to $34,579 a year from $31,435 and supervisors’ pay to $40,690 a year from $36,991. New hires will enter the agency at the new salary levels.
To help find qualified workers, Social Services is working with the state Department of Employment and Workforce to host job fairs starting this month to help identify and screen candidates.
Social Services also plans to hire a outside consultant to help recruit and screen applicants. The agency hopes to have that consultant in place by November.
The 67 assistant-caseworker positions — a new entry-level position at the agency — are part of Social Services’ plan to offer more help to caseworkers.
The assistants will do administrative work, “so that (caseworkers) can focus more directly on the families,” Gillum said, adding the assistants may not be qualified to manage caseloads but, with experience, could move up into those positions later.
The agency also is creating lead caseworker positions to give exceptional employees more opportunity for advancement. Lead caseworkers, who would be paid more, would mentor less-experienced staffers.