The Buzz

SC child-welfare agency says it needs additional $33 million, 157 workers

South Carolina’s welfare agency will ask for about $32.6 million in new money next year, in part to hire more workers to help the embattled agency protect children and vulnerable adults.

The agency wants 157 new full-time positions, S.C. Department of Social Services director Susan Alford told a panel of Senate budget writers Wednesday.

The request for more money and workers comes as Social Services struggles to lower persistently high caseloads among its workers, endangering children that are in the agency’s care.

The General Assembly approved more than 250 new staff positions for the agency in this year’s budget, including 177 new caseworkers. The agency has filled 120 of those positions. But the new workers take time to train and get in the field, Alford said. In the past three weeks, 71 newly hired caseworkers completed basic training.

The agency also has hired 28 of the 67 new caseworker assistants that legislators authorized to ease caseworkers’ administrative duties.

Last year, Alford succeeded Lillian Koller, who resigned as director amid a furor over overworked child-welfare workers and children dying while in the agency’s care. Rising caseloads contributed to high turnover among workers and low-employee morale, two challenges Alford says she has worked to fix.

However, high caseloads persist, Alford said. The agency has 142 child-welfare caseworkers with more than 50 cases each to manage, including three staffers with more than 100 cases each.

In Richland and Spartanburg, two high-population counties, the number of caseworkers with more than 50 cases apiece to manage has gone up since the beginning of the year.

Alford, in her ninth month leading the agency, said she expects heavy caseloads to drop in January, when new caseworkers are ready to take on cases.

But the agency also expects its cases to continue increasing. Additional regional call centers have opened, fielding abuse-and-neglect reports.

The roll-out of four regional call centers since January has led to a spike in cases. Alford has postponed opening other regional call centers, unable to address the rise in cases.

State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the agency’s budget request should be a top priority when lawmakers return to work in January, when more money for roads, education and assisting with the state’s flood recovery will all be “No. 1s” with budget writers.

“To me, nothing could be more important than protecting vulnerable adults and children.”

Federal food aid slated for disaster areas

Some residents of S.C. counties declared federal disaster areas soon will have help buying food.

Starting next week, residents of counties hit hardest by this month’s flooding will be able to apply for SNAP — or food stamp — benefits specifically for disaster victims, Social Services director Susan Alford said Wednesday.

A family of three would receive about $511 in aid, Alford said, adding the agency hopes to release more information about eligibility and how to apply next week.