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When South Carolina’s 124 state representatives take up the state’s $9.3 billion proposed budget in two weeks, it will not include $44.5 million requested to hire and retain Social Services caseworkers to oversee child-abuse cases.
Legislators have become increasingly frustrated with the state Department of Social Services — currently without a permanent director — as it struggles to retain and hire caseworkers. The agency also has been unable to answer legislators’ questions, including how many children in its custody died last year, lawmakers complain.
“To not have an answer (to that question) two or three weeks later is disturbing at best,” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, told the House Ways and Means Committee last week. “It seemingly came across as there was some degree of tone deafness.”
Citing “grave concerns,” House budget writers last week rejected Social Services’ request for $44.5 million, money tied to the agency’s agreement of the federal-class Michelle H. lawsuit. Those budget writers included no money for the settlement in their proposed state general fund budget.
That 2015 lawsuit accused then-Gov. Nikki Haley and Social Services, which reports directly to the governor, of failing to protect the state’s most vulnerable children, many of whom died or were abused while under the agency’s care. The state and Haley settled the lawsuit, agreeing to make improvements. However, legislators have complained they were not consulted in that settlement, tying their hands.
Last week, House and Senate budget committee chairmen received a letter from acting Social Services director Joan Meacham, provided to The State, saying the settlement’s requirements would cost the agency an additional $35.6 million over the next fiscal year, on top of the $44.5 million the agency originally requested.
“DSS does not believe it can expedite full implementation of these measures without additional appropriations to cover the costs,” Meacham wrote. “Nevertheless, DSS understands that this is the court’s will and the agency remains cognizant of its obligations under the 2016 settlement agreement.”
For years, Social Services has been unable to hire enough caseworkers, poorly paid and often overworked.
Legislators say they have tried to help, adding millions of dollars to Social Services’ budget in recent years. However, the agency has not shown “demonstrable progress in such areas as caseloads,” said House budget health care chair Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort.
The powerful House Ways and Means Committee last week also agreed to create a committee to study Social Services, in part to see if certain operations — for example, food stamp benefits — should be moved to another agency.
Meanwhile, Social Services still is without a permanent director. Director Susan Alford retired last summer.
The governor’s office said Monday it expects a list of finalists for the post by the end of the week.
The search for a new director is being conducted by Find Great People, a recruiting firm most recently involved in DHEC’s year-long search for a new director. The resumes of the finalists will be screened by Gov. Henry McMaster’s staff, and a small group that includes state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington and state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens.
“As important as speed is, we want to make sure we choose the right person,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the settlement’s requirements would cost the agency an additional $35.6 million over the next fiscal year, on top of the $44.5 million the agency originally requested, according to DSS’ Feb. 20 letter.