Months after legislative hearings and critical reports on high child welfare caseloads at the state Department of Social Services, 15 percent of caseworkers are handling 50 or more children each, the agency’s new director told senators today.
In fact, the two highest caseloads in the state are carried by child welfare workers in Spartanburg County, one with 143 children and the other with 113 children, said DSS director Susan Alford.
DSS has set a target limit of no more than 24 children per worker, Alford said, a target she said is not being met in many counties.
Alford said the agency has addressed the situation by hiring new caseworkers, many of whom are being trained, and DSS has asked for 177 new caseworkers, six new supervisors and 67 caseworker assistants in the budget year that begins in July.
Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who sits on the Senate DSS Oversight Subcommittee, said the numbers are “stunning” to him.
“These children are still falling through the cracks,” he said. Lourie said Alford has inherited a “mess” from the agency’s last permanent director, Lillian Koller, who resigned last summer after some lawmakers asked for her to step down.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who also sits on the panel, said the state cannot go backwards in its handling of children but wants lawmakers to stop looking at what Koller might have done.
“If somebody has 143 children, somebody is going to fall through the cracks,” she said. “That’s just unacceptable. Somebody is going to die. We’ve got to fix it. Whatever it takes to fix it, let’s do it.”
Shealy said she wants the agency to fix the problem immediately, not in six months.
Alford said 38 new child welfare workers are in the process of being trained for the three counties with the highest caseloads, including Spartanburg, and will be ready in May.
In the meantime, she said, teams of caseworkers are being used from other counties or the state’s regional offices to help.
She said two issues are complicating the state’s caseloads right now, high turnover and new regional intake hubs.
Preliminary numbers show a 39 percent turnover rate for child welfare workers in 2014, Alford said. DSS has responded by developing a career ladder for workers and handing out raises.
She said from June 2014 to March 27, the state hired 368 child welfare workers but lost 201, for a net gain of 167. She said she thinks the net gains will increase, though it’s too early yet to analyze turnover data for this year.
The agency also last year began setting up seven regional intake hubs, a process that officials hope will standardize what happens when someone calls with a complaint about child abuse or neglect. The new system will be complete by July, DSS said.
Alford said she believes the spike in caseloads this year have been due to the new intake process because complaints are being evaluated more carefully and that has led to more investigations.
Between January and March, according to DSS, the monthly caseloads increased by 23 percent to 3,460.
Those higher caseloads also have pushed up the number of children in foster care, officials say, and those numbers have come at a time when the state has a shortage of licensed foster homes.
“It’s unbelievable the number of children taken into the system the last nine months,” Carl Brown, executive director of the South Carolina Foster Parent Association, told senators.
And that spike has come as more foster parents have quit to adopt children, he said.
Michelle Dhunjishah, director and general counsel for the South Carolina Foster Care Review Board, told the panel that some foster parents are complaining about the way they are treated by DSS staff.
“They don’t feel like they are being treated like they are a meaningful part of the system,” she said.
Sen. Tom Young, chairman of the panel, said one parent complained about her time as a foster parent, saying in 14 months she had six different caseworkers and that she was sometimes given an hour to leave work to have a home meeting with a caseworker.
Young said if other foster parents are being treated that way, “we’ve got a real problem.”
Dhunjishah said the agency needs to have a “hard conversation about treating people the right way.”
“Relationships matter,” she said. “Children will be safer and better if we are all working together.”
She recommended the state find a way to streamline the process for licensing new foster parents, which can take nine months.
Dhunjishah also recommended the creation of an oversight process by an entity other than DSS to check on children placed with “alternative caregivers,” generally relatives of children removed from the home for some reason.
Those caregivers are not licensed and the arrangements are supposed to be temporary but she said they may last a year or more.
While caseworkers are supposed to make both background checks and visits, “I don’t know it happens with as much consistency as we would like.”
Her comments came three months after child advocates filed a federal, class-action lawsuit against the state seeking changes to the foster care system.
According to the 74-page complaint, maltreatment in foster care has gone uninvestigated by DSS, inaccurate data masks a much higher rate of abuse and neglect in care than the state reports to the federal government, and caseworkers have been so overburdened that children suffer unnecessary harm.