The state’s child-welfare agency is struggling but making progress in hiring more caseworkers to relieve heavy caseloads that critics say threaten the safety of S.C. children.
The S.C. Department of Social Services has hired 250 new caseworkers and supervisors since beginning a hiring push this summer. But, during that same period, 139 workers left, leaving the agency short 111 needed child-welfare specialists, acting director Amber Gillum told a state Senate Social Services oversight hearing Thursday.
Gillum also told senators that Social Services plans to launch a hotline for reporting child abuse and neglect. Calls would be screened at six regional offices, she said.
Now, those calls go to 46 county Social Services offices. However, workers in those offices do not always follow agency policy in deciding whether to investigate cases or refer them outside the agency for help, said experts who also testified Thursday.
Gillum said the embattled state agency is making progress, including hiring additional caseworkers. Recent job fairs for caseworkers yielded more than 200 applicants who met minimum qualifications for the job.
“It’s a bump up from where we were last time. I wish it was even more, but I think we’re making progress,” Gillum said. “We’re going to get there. It’s just going to take us a little bit of time to get all those folks who are out there doing a great job fully trained and able to take on caseloads.”
The tone of the hearing was markedly different from those held earlier this year, when senators grilled Social Services leaders about troubles at the agency.
Former agency director Lillian Koller resigned in June, amid rising concerns about workers’ heavy caseloads. Gov. Nikki Haley is interviewing candidates to succeed Koller.
Identifying himself as “probably (the agency’s) most vocal critic,” state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the agency was “at rock bottom” when senators began their hearings last year.
But, Lourie told Gillum, with the subcommittee’s work and the agency’s efforts, “We’re turning the corner, and I thank you for that.”
The push to hire more caseworkers came this summer after lawmakers questioned the heavy caseloads of Social Services workers.
Turnover also has plagued Social Services.
The agency lost more than 65 percent of its caseworkers from 2011 to 2013, according to a recent S.C. Legislative Audit Council review. Turnover among the agency’s county directors was more than 58 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to the same report.
Noting some child-welfare workers still have 90 to 100 children to supervise, state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, recommended working with local directors in six counties to figure out why caseworkers are leaving.
“Are they going to another agency? Are they leaving because they are retiring? Are the leaving because they’re overworked, depressed, sad, mad?” Shealy said. “Why are they leaving? Because it’s like, in some places, we’re going backwards.”
Gillum said she would start the process to evaluate employees’ reasons for leaving.
Expert: Abuse reports mishandled
Olga Rosa, a forensic child-abuse pediatrician at the USC School of Medicine, urged lawmakers to support centralizing the process of screening reports of abuse and neglect. She said all county-level Social Services workers do not follow agency policy in deciding whether to investigate cases or refer families to outside organizations for help.
Rosa said centralizing the process also would ensure calls reporting abuse reach the appropriate authority: Social Services, if a parent or guardian is the accused abuser, or law enforcement, if the alleged abuser is someone else, such as a babysitter or teacher at school.
Under the current system, Rosa added, someone who wants to report abuse to Social Services might be told to hang up and call law enforcement. A centralized office would ensure those reporting abuse only have to make one call, Rosa and the senators said.
Shealy said some people reporting abuse might not have the nerve to make a second call. “Or if you’re going into the closet to call ... or somebody’s getting abused, you might not want to try it again.”
Rosa also expressed concerns Social Services is not consulting her network of child-abuse pediatricians who are trained to identify medical signs of abuse, part of the S.C. Children’s Advocacy Medical Response System.
Also, Social Services sometimes does not follow up on reports of abuse that come through doctors, said Rosa, one of 18 S.C. doctors who evaluated more than 3,000 children in 2013 who were suspected victims of abuse or neglect.
Rosa said when a child-abuse pediatrician reports abuse to Social Services, the agency should give it the highest attention. Sometimes those cases are referred in error to community-based services, she said.
“That’s a big no-no,” Rosa said.