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DSS director: Vulnerable adults receive little attention

S.C. DSS Director Susan Alford
S.C. DSS Director Susan Alford FILE PHOTOGRAPH

The task of protecting South Carolina’s elderly and disabled adults has become an “afterthought” at the Department of Social Services, its director told a Senate panel.

Susan Alford, who took the agency’s helm in February, acknowledged her agency needs to do a better job protecting vulnerable adults. A decade of budget cuts and staff shortages have “marginalized” such services, she said.

“It tends to be an area that we just look at as an afterthought,” Alford said Monday. “There’s been very little attention paid to this area.”

The agency doesn’t even have a statewide plan for adult services, though that should soon change, she said.

Because “we’ve spread ourselves so thin across the department,” Alford said, caseworkers responsible for keeping kids safe have also been handling vulnerable adult cases.

Her improvement efforts so far include putting adult protective services in a separate division with its own director, she said.

The Senate panel that’s been investigating DSS since January 2014 has focused on children’s deaths amid caseloads that, for some social workers, still top 100 children. Former Director Lillian Koller, who had insisted for years that DSS needed no additional money or staff, resigned in June 2014, on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Senate.

Now the panel plans to turn its attention to vulnerable adults.

To prepare for the next hearing, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, has requested a county-by-county breakdown from DSS on employees assigned to adult protection cases. That number had dwindled to just one in Lexington County, she said.

“We don’t look after them like we should. We think when people become adults, they can take care of themselves,” but that’s often not the case, especially as the state’s population ages, she said.

South Carolina’s over-64 population is among the nation’s fastest growing. More than 720,000 residents fall in that age group, up from 485,000 in 2000. The number’s expected to exceed 1.1 million by 2030, according to the Census.

Yet, fewer vulnerable adults are receiving services through DSS.

Between 2000 and 2013, the number dropped from 7,600 to 4,200, as the agency’s budget for adult protection services shrunk by more than half, to $3.2 million, according to a June report by the South Carolina Institute of Medicine & Public Health.

“We’ve heard complaints around the state that reports don’t get taken,” AARP state director Teresa Arnold said of potential abuse cases. “They’re having a hard time getting someone out to investigate.”

Alford acknowledged that calls weren’t being answered. The 20 counties that regionalized call centers in January have experienced a 25 percent increase in calls and a 41 percent increase in cases. Uniform training on how to screen calls meant more went on to be investigated, she said.

The spike caused Alford to put an indefinite hold on creating any more regional call centers until the agency can boost its ranks.

Shealy said she worries about the other 26 counties. “How many children and adults are we not finding out are in trouble? Did we not go check on that old person because we didn’t have enough people?”

The agency is in the process of hiring and training about 180 additional child welfare workers with additional state funding. But Alford said those positions won’t be enough. She expects to seek money for more caseworkers in the upcoming budget, both for children and adults.

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