The Buzz

September 3, 2014

SC child-welfare leaders: PR plan not about ‘image’

The S.C. Department of Social Services is getting a communication makeover as a way to provide better services to children and families – not, as one critic says, to polish the embattled agency’s image amid ongoing scrutiny, an agency official said. Democrat Vincent Sheheen says he would ‘clean house’ of DSS top leaders.

The Buzz

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The S.C. Department of Social Services is getting a communication makeover as a way to provide better services to children and families, agency leaders said Wednesday.

But state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s Democratic challenger in November, said the public relations firm’s involvement is just more evidence of incompetence at Haley’s Cabinet agency.

If elected, Sheheen said he would “clean house” of top Social Services leaders brought in by Lillian Koller, the agency’s former director, appointed by Haley, who resigned in June. Asked whom specifically he would fire, Sheheen declined to provide names.

Social Services is working with Clarus Consulting Group to improve communication between agency managers and staff members, and between the agency and other child-welfare organizations, deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said.

That effort began about a year ago.

Clarus’ services are not costing S.C. taxpayers anything, Hanak-Coulter said. Instead, Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based nonprofit that tries to reduce the need for foster care, is picking up the tab. Hanak-Coulter said the agency does not know how much the services are costing Casey. The nonprofit, established by the founder of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has paid for similar work in other states, Social Services said.

The communications plan, first made public Tuesday by The (Charleston) Post and Courier, comes as Social Services faces questions about child deaths and overworked caseworkers, both subjects of an ongoing state Senate investigation. A state audit of the agency also is expected to be released later this month.

Agency leaders say the consultant’s work is not about improving the agency’s image. The goal is to improve services and communication among the agency, employees, and community partners who provide services to children and families.

The consultant’s work, Social Services’ acting director Amber Gillum said in a memo to employees, would “provide a road map for how we can better foster trust and credibility with the community and stakeholders through reliable, accurate, transparent and timely communication.”

The work also would clarify the roles of employees, improve relationships with community partners and tell Social Services’ success stories more effectively, Gillum said.

Social Services leaders have not, Hanak-Coulter said, sought the consultant’s help with responding to questions about caseworkers or child deaths.

Instead, the consultant has helped the agency by, for example, condensing a 200-page report into a one-page summary written in “everyday language” that Social Services employees and community partners can understand, Hanak-Coulter said.

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