The state’s child welfare agency should hire 202 new caseworkers – about a 25 percent increase –to reduce caseloads that Social Services leaders, lawmakers and child welfare advocates say are too high to ensure children’s safety.
South Carolina Department of Social Services deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter told senators Wednesday that hiring 202 new workers would keep caseloads at or below proposed limits for the number of cases and children each worker can shoulder at a time.
Hiring the new caseworkers would cost $10 million and require approval by the General Assembly.
In the last four years, Social Services has made only one request to hire new caseworkers – a point that frustrates senators on the special panel that has been investigating Social Services. That investigation began after child welfare advocates said Social Services was missing abuse cases that led to children dying.
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Earlier this year, Social Services received approval to hire 50 new caseworkers. That request came after the Senate started its hearings.
The new employees – 109 front-line caseworkers, 79 supervisors working directly with caseworkers and second-shift relief for the day-time caseworkers – would help Social Services lower caseloads, Hanak-Coulter said.
The agency wants to limit its child abuse investigators to cases involving no more than 24 children. Foster care workers would handle no more than 14 to 20 children ideally.
The lower caseload limits came about after the agency started a study in August that a state auditing agency recommended in 2006.
The new positions would reverse a four-year decline in the number of child-protective services and foster care positions approved by the Legislature. Those positions have dropped by 255, or 18 percent, since 2009.
Chaired by Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, the Senate panel – whose other two members are Sens. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington – also heard testimony Wednesday from the president of a S.C. social work association who said Social Services pays too little to attract qualified workers.
Young said he was glad to hear the agency was moving “in the right direction” to hire new employees and limiting their caseloads.
The hearing was the first time the senators have heard from Social Services leaders since director Lillian Koller resigned in June. The 2011 appointee of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said she stepped down because her leadership of the agency had become a “distraction” amid growing accusations of mismanagement.
Reversing a trend
Increasing the number of caseworkers at Social Services would counter a recent trend at the agency.
The number of employees approved by lawmakers for Social Services’ child-protective and foster care operations peaked in 2008 and 2009 at more than 1,400 – including front-line caseworkers and additional staff members, according to a review by The State newspaper of S.C. budgets back to 2000 found.
That number was down to 1,175 in 2011, when Gov. Haley took office, appointing Koller to run Social Services. Last year, the number dropped further – to 1,162, an 18 percent decrease since 2009.
Most of that drop occurred in 2011 as state agencies were ordered by legislators to abolish any positions that had been vacant for more than a year, agency officials said Wednesday night. Those cuts were part of the state’s effort to cut its budget in the wake of the Great Recession.
Social Services now has about 800 front-line caseworkers, said Hanak-Coulter, adding that number changes almost daily. Turnover has led to vacancies in already-approved positions, she said.
The agency is working to fill vacant posts. Since June, Social Services has filled 59 open positions, she said, and the agency continues to advertise its openings.
New study, old idea
About 40 percent of Social Services’ caseworkers shoulder higher caseloads than national experts recommend, according to a review by The State caseloads in May. Some caseworkers had more than 40 cases with, at times, more than 100 children to handle.
But, to the frustration of senators on the panel, Social Services at first did not initially request more money for caseworkers this year.
However, the agency later requested legislative approval to hire 50 new workers after the Senate panel began hearings, pressing the agency’s leaders to explain the deaths of children that Social Services had been charged with protecting.
Before that, the agency’s last previous request for more caseworkers had come in 2010.
That year, Social Services asked for 41 new employees, including 33 to help foster-care workers more quickly find children permanent homes. None of the 41 would have been front-line caseworkers directly responsible for children or families.
Hanak-Coulter said Wednesday the agency is working to address heavy caseloads.
Social Services recently came up with new caseload limits after concluding a study of how many cases S.C. child welfare workers routinely shoulder and how many they should be handling to ensure the safety of the children in their care.
That caseload review began in August, seven years after a state audit cited similarly high caseloads and recommended caseloads be studied.
A 2006 S.C. Legislative Audit Council review showed Social Services caseworkers were shouldering heavier caseloads than recommended by national experts. The report recommended a formal study that could help make caseloads more manageable.
A 2009 follow-up on that audit showed Social Services never conducted the caseload study, citing budgetary constraints.
The panel Wednesday also heard from Jeanne Cook, president of the S.C. National Association of Social Workers, who told senators the state’s child welfare employees do not have the qualifications or receive the training of social workers. They also are underpaid.
After seeing some child welfare jobs posted, a colleague told her, “these are poverty wages,” Cook told the panel.
Lawmakers, she continued, need to offer the “kind of salaries that attract the people that you want to attract to do this very important job. I know we have economic issues, but you do get what you pay for.”
Hanak-Coulter said the starting salary for a child-welfare caseworker is $31,000 a year. The state offers no merit-based pay raises that could help retain quality case workers, she added.
That is something Hanak-Coulter said Social Services might ask lawmakers to change to help recruit workers.
The state’s current front-line workers are doing a great job, she said.
“Our caseworkers are dedicated, hard-working ... they absolutely are. They work nights, weekends, all the time, and I applaud their effort.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error in reporting on the caseworkers Social Services requested in 2010.