Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday appointed a director at a Clemson University youth outreach program to take over her cabinet’s embattled child welfare agency.
Susan Alford, an associate executive director of Clemson’s Youth Learning Institute and a former administrator at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, succeeds Lillian Koller. Koller resigned in June amid ongoing hearings by senators investigating claims that excessively high caseloads were threatening children’s safety.
Holly Pisarik, who stepped aside as director of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation last week, will assist Alford.
Alford’s appointment needs confirmation from the state Senate. She starts Jan. 5. Haley’s office will request that Alford be paid $154,900, the amount Koller earned when she resigned.
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Haley delivered the announcement after what she said has been “a lot of chaos” at Social Services following Koller’s exit.
Haley said she was looking for a child advocate, “someone who understood what it was like to be on the front lines,” knew how “to lead and to motivate,” and who had worked with victims, offenders, abused children and children who abuse.
“I can think of no mission that is more important that the mission of the S.C. Department of Social Services,” Alford said Monday. “We can do this sort of work. ... It’s always challenging, but we have to do it with openness, with integrity, with humility and with a lot of determination.”
Haley was vague when asked about how many candidates she considered for the job, saying only, “a lot.” Her office said the search was national.
Senators investigating Social Services said they offered to reviewcandidates for Haley and provide feedback. The governor did not take them up on the offer, senators said.
“We’ve worked long and hard over the last 12 months trying to figure out the issues at DSS,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. “We had hoped (the governor) would reach out to us, but she doesn’t have to do that.”
Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he had hoped to give input on the candidates.
“All of us hope to avoid any confrontation or showdown over this appointment – not suggesting that there will be one,” he said.
Lourie said that “given the seriousness and the scope of the problem,” he thought the governor would have brought in a national expert on child welfare issues, someone with years of related experience to either help with the search or become a candidate for the job.
“Having said that,” Lourie added, “I look forward to meeting Ms. Alford, and talking to her about her plans and where she wants to take the agency.”
Koller ran Hawaii’s welfare agency before coming to South Carolina. Some critics have said being an outsider led to a misunderstanding of how S.C. child welfare programs work.
Lourie said he hopes to hear more about Alford’s knowledge of child-welfare casework and how she plans to reduce caseloads. He also wants to know how she plans to improve the process of screening reports of abuse and neglect, and what role she sees community-based service providers playing in protecting children.
Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican who chairs the Senate panel examining DSS, said the Senate confirmation process will be “intense.”
A career in youth agencies
Alford, an Irmo resident who drives to the Youth Learning Institute’s four offices in the state, has spent 36 years working for agencies that serve children in different settings.
Early in her career, she worked as a youth probation and parole counselor, directed a juvenile arbitration program in Lexington County, and spent less than a year as a case management supervisor for the state’s agency for emotionally disturbed children.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Alford held several administrative positions in the S.C. departments of Juvenile Justice and Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
Alford came to Clemson in 2007 as the director of the Girls Center at the university’s Youth Learning Institute, which has programs in which more than 100,000 young people participate in annually, according to the organization’s website.
Alford will work with other state agency leaders to tackle the problems at Social Services, Haley said.
Haley said Pisarik, her “ultimate fix-it person,” will be Alford’s special assistant, helping the new director assess problems at the agency and address them.
Alford takes over an agency that has announced several milestones, including moving thousands from welfare to work, under Koller.
But to the surprise of the senators investigating Social Services, Koller had never asked for more child welfare workers in her annual budget requests submitted to the governor and to the state Legislature.
A S.C. Legislative Audit Council report published in October revealed that high turnover and heavy caseloads plagued the agency.
Shortly after the report, Haley told The State that Koller never indicated to her that caseloads were a problem.
Amber Gillum, a deputy director under Koller, took the agency’s reins on an interim basis. She made hiring additional child welfare caseworkers a priority.
Gillum also said the agency would speed up the training process for child welfare workers by reducing the time between training days. Last week, Gillum said Social Services will have a regional system for screening reports of abuse and neglect to ensure calls are handled appropriately and consistent training for people screening calls.
The agency also is making progress toward getting more child welfare caseworkers in the field, but turnover remains an obstacle.
As of Dec. 8, Gillum said the agency had hired 250 new child welfare caseworkers and supervisors, netting 111 after 139 workers also stepped out of those positions.
Standing with her during Monday’s announcement, Haley thanked Gillum for her leadership at the agency.
Haley said Gillum oversaw Social Services’ recent wage increases, the creation of new career opportunities for caseworkers who excel in fieldwork and visited county Social Services offices across the state, “making sure that we brought calm to the situation.”