Gov. Nikki Haley’s pick to overhaul the state’s troubled child-welfare agency will bring a passion for helping at-risk youth and a talent for fixing broken systems to her new job, colleagues say.
With approval from the state Senate, Susan Alford of Irmo will become the S.C. Department of Social Services’ new director, replacing Lillian Koller, who resigned in June amid mounting criticism of chronically high turnover rates and heavy caseloads among workers.
Until she is confirmed by the Senate, Alford will work as the agency’s new director of performance improvements. She started work Monday.
Alford’s arrival at Social Services comes at a time when Koller’s deputies are struggling to hire new caseworkers.
Haley’s Cabinet pick also signals a shift in Social Services’ direction.
Koller, who was paid $154,900 a year, left a similar job at Hawaii’s child-welfare agency to come to South Carolina in 2011 and, later, was criticized as an outsider by some.
Alford has spent nearly 40 years working in the Palmetto State.
Alford has worked for the past seven years at the Girls Center, a Clemson University nonprofit, creating programs for at-risk girls to help them avoid abuse, jail and the cycle of poverty.
Before that, Alford worked in state agencies for more than 30 years, including 13 years at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice where she worked with former directors Margaret Barber, who recommended Alford to Haley, and William Byars.
Alford never has worked for Social Services directly. But, she told The State Monday in an exclusive interview, her career has overlapped frequently with the child-welfare agency that Haley has tasked her with improving.
“We’re in the same business – we’re on different sides of the business,” Alford said.
Colleagues say Alford, 60, is ready for the challenge.
“(Alford) is someone that knows the children and the families. She’s not just an administrator,” said Barber, who retired as Juvenile Justice’s director last month and worked with Alford for many years at that agency.
Reforms at Juvenile Justice
Alford’s colleagues credit her for contributing to a major overhaul of Juvenile Justice after she came to the agency in the 1990s.
At the time, Alford said Monday, Juvenile Justice was understaffed and trying to comply with a court order that it must improve its services for youthful offenders. The agency also was struggling to determine the best services for offenders, Alford said, adding Social Services has a similar problem now in the way the agency screens abuse and neglect reports.
Alford worked under then-director Byars, a former Family Court judge praised for improving Juvenile Justice.
Byars asked her to come up with a plan for improving the agency and complying with the court, “pulling people together” to collaborate, Alford said, adding Byars’ leadership was essential.
Byars “set the culture there that we didn't create the problems at DJJ,” but employees were obligated to fix the problems, she said.
Byars said last week that Alford’s wide knowledge of the agency’s programs and laws governing them impressed him so much that he frequently would consult her before making decisions.
Alford will bring other skills to Social Services, Byars added: “She’s a bulldog. She’ll grab a hold of it.”
Focusing on girls
At Juvenile Justice, Alford also found a passion that carried over into her most recent work, said her coworkers at Clemson’s Youth Learning Institute, which houses the Girls Center where Alford worked until this month.
Alford “took a serious look at how girls behind the fence were being cared for ... just like boys” and spearheaded programs for girls, said Pam Bryant, the institute’s communications director.
Alford left Juvenile Justice to start the Girls Center at Clemson. The nonprofit helps state agencies and other organizations develop programs for at-risk girls. The center also conducts research and offers training for those groups.
Social Services’ gain is a bittersweet loss for the Girls Center, said the institute’s executive director, Stephen Lance.
“She’s not a politician. She’s not doing this for legacy or fame. She’s doing it because she genuinely thinks that she can make an impact.”
‘Not from out of state’
Haley said last month that she picked Alford after considering “a lot” of candidates in a national search, declining to say who or how many candidates she reviewed.
Chaney Adams, Haley’s spokeswoman, added Monday: “Not only is (Alford) passionate about the children she serves, she understands what it means to lead and motivate and has worked on the front lines with key child-welfare stakeholders.”
Haley’s quiet search raised some eyebrows among state senators who offered to assist the Republican governor with vetting or finding candidates. Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he had hoped Haley would consider a national expert among the candidates.
But Lourie and others have said they look forward to learning more about Alford’s plan for the agency.
To her former colleagues, Alford’s S.C. roots are an advantage.
“She’s not from out of state,” Barber said. “She’s from South Carolina. She knows who the players are, knows the resources, knows how the case-management system is designed in each agency.
“I feel like we have hit a home run here,” Barber said, adding anyone who says “We need a national expert” does not know Alford.
“It's a huge job,” Alford said Monday. “But it’s one that I absolutely will try to tackle.”