Politics & Government

Can this 39-year-old from Tennessee turn around SC’s embattled child-welfare agency?

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has nominated Michael Leach to lead the state’s child-welfare agency, a nomination that legislators hope brings calm to a department that has struggled for years to fix heavy caseloads and high turnover among child-welfare workers.

McMaster’s Wednesday announcement ends a roughly seven-month search after the Department of Social Services’ former director, Susan Alford, retired in July.

McMaster’s office said Joan Meacham will stay on as the agency’s acting director until Leach, 39, is confirmed by the state’s 46-member Senate.

“This is a big day for us in South Carolina,” McMaster said, standing beside legislators and child advocates who advised the governor on finding a new director. “It’s a transformative move for the Department of Social Services, which is one of the most critical functions ... in South Carolina.”

Leach accepted the job on March 16 — a day after he was offered the position and several months after an “exhaustive” search that started in August, McMaster’s office said.

Leach was one of several candidates picked by a recruiting firm, yet his resume was “at the top,” said Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens. Leach has demonstrated an “outstanding track record of reform and quality improvement” in his career, said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.

Leach’s background includes training in mental health and more than a decade working at Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services, where he most recently held the job of deputy commissioner for the agency’s child programs. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University, Stanislaus, and a master’s in marriage and family therapy from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, according to his LinkedIn account.

“I’m excited and eager to get started,” Leach said Wednesday, adding even before his Senate confirmation he will get to know the groups and people who partner with Social Services. “I look forward to being part of the DSS family and work alongside the DSS professionals.”

If confirmed, Leach will lead a state agency that has been troubled for years.

In Leach’s previous position, he oversaw 2,000 employees — about half the number of employees at Social Services, which, as of earlier this month, had about 944 vacant full-time positions.

Before Alford took over at the agency, Social Services’ previous director Lillian Koller resigned in June 2014 amid outcry over extremely heavy caseloads and low morale among child-welfare workers and children dying while in the agency’s care.

Since then, under Alford’s leadership, lawmakers have continued to question why the agency has been unable to hire enough caseworkers to oversee the state’s most vulnerable children, despite the state having doled out millions of dollars to help them recruit caseworkers and to give them raises.

The agency also faced a 2015 federal class-action lawsuit that said a lack of health care and other basic services endangered children under the care of the state’s Social Services Department.

The lawsuit was eventually settled by the agency and then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

However, since then, lawmakers still argue the agency has done little to show it’s fixing various deficiencies.

Citing “grave concerns” by House budget writers, the full S.C. House in March adopted the state’s roughly $9 billion budget proposal that did not include $44.5 million — money tied to the lawsuit agreement — requested by Social Services to hire and retain agency caseworkers.

Despite the agency’s history and oftentimes contentious relationship with legislators, Leach told reporters he’s up for the job.

“It’s an opportunity to take some of the things that I’ve learned from good teachers, mentors, leaders, and take on this challenge,” he said. “It’s a daunting task, but with the support of folks behind me ... we can accomplish something really big here in South Carolina.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.