Politics & Government

SC Senate panel OKs Gov. McMaster’s pick to lead the state’s child-welfare agency

Gov. Henry McMaster’s pick to lead the state’s child welfare agency says he hopes to “change the culture” at a department that has struggled for years against high turnover rates and heavy caseloads among workers charged with protecting children.

Michael Leach, 39, was met with little resistance from state senators Wednesday before the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee approved putting the Nevada native at the helm of the agency, also responsible for vulnerable adults and public assistance programs.

The full Senate could confirm Leach as early as next week, said committee chairwoman Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. Joan Meacham will remain the agency’s acting director until Leach is confirmed.

In his pitch to senators, Leach said “there needs to be a focus on the culture of the agency.”

“If we are not providing the culture that we want within the agency, then that culture is probably not going to be brought to our children and families,” he said.

Leach was nominated by the governor in March to lead Social Services, nearly a year after Susan Alford retired from the agency in July amid questions over how millions in state money had been spent and why child caseworker turnover was continuing to balloon.

Leach, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, started his career as a marriage and family therapist. More recently, he was the deputy commissioner for Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services, responsible for foster care, adoption and child placement programs.

If Leach is confirmed, he will take over a nearly 4,000-person agency — which, as of March, had about 944 vacant full-time positions. He also will take over its responsibilities for vulnerable adults, an area Leach told senators he was not familiar with but would rely heavily on experts.

As the state’s Social Services director, Leach assured senators he would work hard to stop the extreme turnover of child caseworkers — a national trend — by advocating for better pay and focusing on the “inefficiencies and barriers” that get in the way of their jobs.

He also expressed to senators that he would assess dire conditions at Social Services’ regional offices throughout the state, after Democratic state Sen. Mia McLeod described the “deplorable” space the agency uses in her Richland district on Two Notch Road.

He also will be responsible in ensuring the agency keeps in line with a settlement stemming from a 2015 federal class-action lawsuit that said a lack of basic health care and other services endangered children while under the care of the Social Services agency.

Frustrated by agency officials, House budget writers in March adopted the state’s roughly $9 billion budget proposal without including $44.5 million — money tied to the settlement — requested by Social Services to hire and retain caseworkers. Next week, the Senate will debate the state’s spending plan without that same money — action that could trigger intervention by a federal judge.

As a deputy commissioner of Tennessee’s child-welfare agency, which has dealt with a similar lawsuit filed before Leach joined the agency, Leach assured senators he is well equipped to handle it. “But it’s a team approach,” he said.

If confirmed, Leach will have yet another looming challenge that has dogged Social Services leaders for years. This October, the state’s expensive, automated child support system — years in the making and behind schedule — will go live statewide.

State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said the system’s smooth roll out must be a priority.

“If the ball is dropped in your early tenure as director,” Young said, “that is not going to be good for you.”

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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.