Natalie Thompson says she whispered in her nephew’s ear whenever she could. “ ‘Yeah, you going to be OK. ... You’re going to be fine.’ ”
Despite her furtive promises to her nephew – meant to evade the boy’s parents, whom Thompson was reporting to the S.C. Department of Social Services for abusing the child – 4-year-old Robert Guinyard was beaten to death with a metal rod in his home in 2013.
Today, the autistic boy’s parents, convicted of homicide by child abuse, are serving life sentences. Recently, Robert’s estate won a $590,000 settlement from the state, according to Joyce Cheeks, the family’s attorney.
The suit alleged Social Services ignored reports from Thompson and others that Robert was being abused. Social Services had forewarning Robert’s mother was dangerous, the suit added, having investigated her for child abuse before.
In his death, Robert became the face of scores of children who fatally fell through the cracks at the S.C. Department of Social Services. The 4-year-old was one of 67 children with prior Social Services records whose deaths were investigated by the state in 2013, one of 681 such child deaths investigated from 2009 through mid-June.
Two years later, South Carolina’s long-ignored Department of Social Services is making progress toward improving its child-welfare services. But it still is struggling to enact needed reforms – mostly aimed at reducing child-welfare workers’ caseloads and retaining employees.
▪ Crippling turnover rates among child-welfare workers – exceeding 100 percent in Richland County and 39 percent statewide in 2014 – fell to 14 percent in Richland and a little more than 7 percent statewide during the first three months of this year, according to Social Services.
▪ However, caseloads – while lower than four years ago, when some caseworkers had more than 100 children to protect at one time – still exceed the agency’s new limit of 24 children for about half of front-line child-welfare workers.
▪ In the state’s general fund budget that took effect July 1, spending for Social Services surpassed the agency’s pre-recession funding for the first time. The extra money has helped give pay raises to child-welfare workers. But those workers’ salaries still trail what their peers were paid two years ago in two neighboring states.
▪ A plan aimed at preventing children from slipping through the cracks at Social Services also has hit a major snag. The initial roll out of a new, statewide call-in system to screen reports of abuse and neglect was halted after reaching only about half the state’s 46 counties. The rollout was paused because the new system was producing so many reports of abuse and neglect that Social Services, still understaffed, could not handle the calls, new director Susan Alford said.
▪ Despite focusing on hiring more staff since 2014, Social Services still is climbing its way out of a nearly decade-old worker shortage. The agency lost 845 filled positions from 2007-08, before the Great Recession, to 2011-12 – when staffing bottomed out at 2,888 filled positions.
Long-lasting improvements at the agency could take years to take effect fully, says child-welfare advocate Laura Hudson, noting it takes six months to train a caseworker and years more for that new worker to become good at his or her job.
“Ms. Alford has a really difficult job, like turning a battleship around in a bathtub,” Hudson said. “But is her heart in the right place?
Rebuilding a workforce
The push to reform Social Services climaxed in 2014, when child-welfare advocates sounded alarms about the number of children dying under the agency’s watch.
Critics blamed the deaths, in part, on child-welfare workers’ heavy caseloads. Those caseloads contributed to widespread, high turnover among the agency’s child-welfare staff.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s Social Services director, Lillian Koller, resigned in mid-2014 amid mounting criticism and calls for new leadership.
Alford, Koller’s successor, took over in December 2014 as lawmakers clamored for improvements at the agency, long in crisis.
The S.C. Legislative Audit Council issued a scathing review of Social Services shortly after Koller’s exit. The report cited high worker caseloads and high employee turnover as serious problems, issues that had been threatening the welfare of children for years. The council had sounded the same alarms in reviews in 1985, 1991 and 2006.
Historically, Social Services has struggled to retain employees and fill vacancies.
In mid-2014, Social Services had 360 job openings. Turnover among child-welfare workers was 66 percent from 2011 to 2013, the Audit Council found.
Today, turnover rates have declined dramatically, officials say.
▪ Turnover fell to 7.4 percent from January through March, down from 27 percent in 2015 and 39 percent in 2014.
▪ In the first three months of this year, half of Social Services’ 46 county offices did not lose a child-welfare worker – a stark reduction compared to last year, when only four county offices retained all their employees.
▪ In this year’s first quarter, the highest turnover rate at any Social Services’ county office was 17 percent. Only 11 counties have turnover rates in the double digits. That is a marked improvement from 2014, when nine county offices had turnover rates higher than 50 percent, including Richland, where turnover was 104 percent. This year, turnover in the Richland office has dropped to 14 percent. In Lexington, turnover fell to 3 percent in the first three months of this year, down from 45 percent last year and 39 percent two years ago.
For some observers, the turnaround is hard to believe – “almost unrealistic,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican and member of a Senate committee that investigated the agency.
Alford, too, said the drop in turnover is promising. But, she added, the problem has not been solved.
Turnover could rise again and delay reaching the agency’s goal of having no child-welfare caseworker manage more than 24 children, she said.
Alford said her goal is to correct the underlying causes of excessive turnover and high caseloads, and ensure each call reporting abuse and neglect is screened correctly.
Only those changes will lead to long-term improvements in the state’s child safety net, she said.
“My biggest fear would be that (Social Services) in 2020 is going to have the same report (of problems highlighted in previous reviews of the agency),” Alford said.
“It’s not that I don’t believe that we aren’t going to get at the goal. We will. We’ll keep at it,” she added. “But my fear is that we won’t stay there.
“And I don’t want to be part of that.”
Hiring key to lowering caseloads
After taking over as director, Alford visited each of Social Services’ 46 county offices. Employees told her that impossibly heavy workloads were the top reason that workers were quitting.
Now, Alford is betting that lowering workloads will help retain quality employees and improve services.
Since 2014, the agency has made progress toward lowering caseloads, once obscenely high. But it still is struggling to push caseloads down below its own, newly established limits.
Those limits say child-welfare caseworkers who assess families for potential abuse and neglect, and then work to help the family correct problems, should have no more than 24 children to look after. Also, foster care workers should have no more than 20 children to manage.
Still, as of June 20, about half – or 482 – of Social Services child-welfare caseworkers had more than 24 children to oversee. And 77 caseworkers had caseloads of more than 50 children. But that was down from 142 caseworkers who shouldered similar caseloads a year earlier.
Offering lawmakers a sense of what it would take to reach its new caseload goals, Alford said Social Services could have 80 percent of child-welfare workers managing caseloads within the agency’s new lower limits by December.
But that would require all new positions be filled and no turnover.
To lower caseloads and turnover rates, the agency started a drive to hire more caseworkers and pay them more in 2013, before Alford came on board. That year, Social Services requested 50 new positions after lawmakers questioned why – since 2010 – the agency had not asked for more employees despite its workers’ oppressive caseloads.
To help with that effort, state lawmakers – with Gov. Nikki Haley’s encouragement – are spending more than they have in a long time on Social Services.
In the budget that took effect July 1, general fund spending for Social Services is $149 million, the highest level since 2007-08. That year, the agency received $139 million from the state’s general fund. Then, spending took a nose dive due to the recession.
“There are certain things that money can’t buy,” Haley told The State newspaper recently, adding her goal is to improve the way that agencies operate before spending more on them.
For example, the Republican added, “It (money) can’t buy a foster family. (But) I can recruit a foster family.”
South Carolina has more children in need of foster homes than it does families to shelter them, the governor noted. To address that shortfall, Social Services, with Haley’s encouragement, has launched a program to recruit more foster families and make easier for them to start fostering children.
Haley also said giving smartphones to all front-line caseworkers has helped make their jobs easier.
“We’ve seen morale go up. ... We’ve seen the caseloads go down,” she said. “We’re not there yet. We’ve got a long way to go. But I think we’ve seen some improvements.”
Before improving its child-welfare operations became a top priority, Social Services’ focus had been elsewhere.
Taking office in 2011, in the wake of the Great Recession, Haley made jobs her top priority. Koller, Haley’s former child-welfare director, focused largely on getting South Carolinians off welfare.
But lawmakers started hearing complaints that Social Services’ child-welfare operations were in a shambles and children were dying as a result.
Testifying before a special Senate committee, Koller unnerved lawmakers when she told them the average caseload for child-welfare workers was six or seven. When critics objected it was much higher, Koller later said the number was so low because it included trainees and supervisors, handling single cases.
After Koller’s exit, Haley said she had no idea that Social Services, which reports directly to the governor, had caseload problems.
In the state budget starting in mid-2015, lawmakers approved more than 280 new positions for the agency, including 177 child-welfare caseworkers and 67 caseworker assistants.
The newly created assistants help with paperwork and other time-consuming tasks that keep caseworkers from getting face time with families in crisis. They also give entry-level experience to workers with an interest in child welfare, creating – in theory – a pipeline of caseworkers.
Starting July 1, the agency has the OK to hire 171 additional child-welfare workers, including 51 new hires for second- and third-shift positions to follow up with families or respond to after-hours calls for help. The agency recently added late-shift workers in Richland and Greenville counties – two of the largest and busiest Social Services offices.
The agency also, for the first time, is hiring its own training directors – a move to provide year-round training for child-welfare workers, targeting topics that employees need the most help in.
“Things are definitely moving in the right direction,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, one of the loudest critics of Social Services two years ago.
“The whole process of hiring and training caseworkers takes time,” said the Richland Democrat, who pushed for reforms as a member of the Senate panel that investigated Social Services. “But I look for continued improvement in the services they deliver as well as the caseloads going down.”
Social Services paying more
Social Services also has given its child-welfare workers raises.
“It probably will in no way compensate them for all the things that they do, but it’s more equitable when you look at other states and what their entry salaries are,” Alford said.
The pay raises were long overdue, say critics, who cite the difficulty of recruiting and retaining quality caseworkers when they can earn more in neighboring North Carolina or in other fields.
The average minimum starting pay for an S.C. caseworker was $30,582 in 2014, up only slightly from $29,797 eight years earlier, according to a state audit. Last year, the starting salary increased to $33,640. On July 1, the starting salary increased to $34,733.
The pay raises make S.C. child-welfare salaries more competitive than in Georgia, where caseworkers’ pay two years ago ranged from $28,000 to $34,000.
But the S.C. salaries do not compete with Tennessee. Two years ago, a Tennessee child-welfare workers with one year of experience was paid more than $36,000.
Creating another challenge to retaining caseworkers, the 2014 Audit Council report found S.C. child-welfare workers can find higher paying jobs in their own communities – working at schools or for other organizations – or in other states. For example, a child protective services worker in Orange County, N.C., was paid $45,677 a year two years ago, the audit found.
Problems reporting abuse persist
Of the 171 new Social Services positions that lawmakers approved this fiscal year, 52 workers are needed to help the agency carry out its plan to make it easier to report abuse and neglect, and ensure legitimate reports are investigated quickly and effectively.
A call-in system, intended to screen reports of abuse and neglect statewide, now covers only about half the state’s 46 counties. The system does not yet include Charleston or Greenville counties – two of the largest in the state.
Alford halted the call-in system’s roll out last year after abuse and neglect reports spiked by 25 percent, leading to 41 percent more investigations.
Social Services couldn’t cope with the added abuse reports, Alford says.
“We weren’t equipped,” she told The State newspaper. “We didn’t have enough staff as it was. We had caseloads that were way too high as it was.”
Child-welfare advocates also have heard complaints from law enforcement and medical professionals about the difficulty of reporting cases through the new system.
Hudson, the child-welfare advocate, said the call-in system does not have enough personnel to answer its phones in a timely manner.
“I’ve had complaints from my pediatricians, one doctor and several law enforcement who have spent 45 minutes to an hour on the phone waiting to make a report,” she said, adding the call-in system’s workers also need more training, including knowing to prioritize calls that come in from people who are required by law to report abuse and neglect.
If the newly authorized hires come on board quickly, it will take at least a year to have the call-in system operational across the state, Alford said.
A new tone
Despite that setback, child-welfare advocates and longtime Social Services workers say Alford’s leadership and the new tone that she has brought to the embattled agency have improved morale.
“There have been a lot of changes in attitude, a lot of changes in procedures,” said Hudson, who first raised questions about children dying while under Social Services’ watch as a member of a state child-fatality review committee.
When she visited county Social Services offices, Alford asked for input from employees and community members – a level of access that longtime Social Services workers said was nonexistent in previous administrations.
Some Social Services workers told Alford they wanted to continue their educations. In response, the agency pushed lawmakers to approve $1.5 million this year for staffers who want to go back to school.
Alford also allows Social Services workers to contact her directly by email. The results have been promising – offering a steady flow of ideas about how to improve the agency, Alford says.
“Her presence definitely made a difference,” said Ken McBride, Newberry County Social Services director. “I’ve heard a number of directors in the past say they’re going to go out to all the counties and visit, but she’s the first one that’s actually done it.
“That within itself told everybody she’s a woman of her word,” he said. “That’s the first time you’ve seen a director in a county office unless it was something that was going on real bad.”
Prescription for crisis
South Carolina’s child-welfare agency was on the verge of collapse in 2014. Why? A combination of factors:
1. Money dried up ...
In the wake of the Great Recession, general fund spending for the state Department of Social Services was slashed. Only this year did state spending for the agency exceed pre-recession levels:
2007-08: $139 million
2008-09: $110 million
2009-10: $119 million
2010-11: $119 million
2011-12: $120 million
2012-13: $122 million
2013-14: $122 million
2014-15: $124 million
2015-16: $134 million
2016-17: $149 million
2. Turnover rates skyrocket ...
As spending collapsed, turnover at Social Services skyrocketed – hitting more than 100 percent in Richland County in 2014 – as child-welfare workers left the agency. Since then, turnover has slowed. A look at turnover rates at Midlands Social Services offices compared to the state as a whole:
First quarter 2016
3. As overworked child-welfare staffers quit ...
Susan Alford, brought in to head Social Services after its 2014 crisis, says agency workers told her that employee were leaving because of impossibly heavy workloads, which the agency now is trying to reduce
100+: In 2014, senators hear that some child-welfare workers have to oversee more than 100 children at a time, far above recommended levels.
24: The number of children a child-welfare worker should oversee, according to Social Services’ new standard.
482: Number of S.C. child-welfare caseworkers overseeing more than 24 children as of June 20 of this year
77: Number of S.C. child-welfare caseworkers overseeing more than 50 children on June 20, down from 142 a year earlier
4. And low pay takes its toll ...
Low pay has contributed to high turnover at the state’s child-welfare agency. How the pay of S.C. child-welfare workers compares to their peers in other states:
$28,005: Starting salary for an entry-level child-welfare caseworker in Georgia in 2014; salary increased to $30,869 after a year of experience
$30,582: Starting salary for an entry-level S.C. caseworker in 2014
$31,968: Starting salary for a similar job in Tennessee in 2014; salary increased to $36,276 after a year of experience
$34,733: Starting salary for an entry-level S.C. child-welfare caseworker as of July 1 of this year
$34,474: Starting salary for a similar job in North Carolina in 2014
5. Leaving agency unable to fill its vacancies
With its budget slashed and turnover rates skyrocketing, Social Services has had been unable to fill its vacancies. In 2011-12, for instance, more than a quarter of its authorized jobs were vacant. A look at how many of its authorized jobs the agency has been able to fill:
2007-08: 92 percent of 4,040 authorized jobs filled
2008-09: 92 percent of 4,066 authorized jobs filled
2009-10: 83 percent of 4,066 authorized jobs filled
2010-11: 78 percent of 3,955 authorized jobs filled
2011-12: 73 percent of 3,954 authorized jobs filled
2012-13: 87 percent of 3,466 authorized jobs filled
2013-14: 90 percent of 3,452 authorized jobs filled
2014-15: 92 percent of 3,502 authorized jobs filled
2015-16: 91 percent of 3,786 authorized jobs filled
2016-17: 87 percent of 3,957 authorized jobs filled; hiring for additional positions began July 1
SOURCES: S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, S.C. Department of Social Services, S.C. Legislative Audit Council
S.C. child deaths and Social Services
The crisis at the S.C. Department of Social Services was uncovered after advocates grew alarmed at the number of children who were dying despite the fact that their cases had been called to the attention of the state agency. A look at how many children died:
Deaths, according to Social Services
Social Services publishes the number of child deaths each year where the agency investigated and found that abuse or neglect likely caused the child’s death:
Deaths, according to the S.C. Child Fatality Review Committee
Coroners are required to report the deaths of children, 17 or younger, that are suspicious, violent, unexplained or unusual for investigation by the S.C. Child Fatality Review Committee. A look at how many of those deaths, including unsafe sleeping or crib-related fatalities, occurred after a child or a sibling had contact with Social Services at any point in their life, according to the fatality committee:
2009: 70, or 33 percent of 214 deaths
2010: 76, or 42 percent of 183 deaths
2011: 67, or 39 percent of 174 deaths
2012: 67, or 43 percent of 156 deaths
2013: 67, or 49 percent of 136 deaths
2014: 220, or 62 percent of 356 deaths; the spike includes 153 previously unreported deaths that were referred to the state in 2014
2015: 86, or 57 percent of 150 deaths
2016 (through June): 28, or 27 percent of 102 deaths
SOURCES: S.C. Department of Social Services, S.C. Child Fatality Review Committee
Findings: Protecting children in S.C.
After two years of scrutiny by lawmaker and child-welfare advocates, the embattled S.C. Department of Social Services is mending slowly. A look at what has changed since 2014:
Caseloads are down: Horrific work loads caused many child-welfare workers to quit in the past. Now, the agency says it wants no caseworker to have to look out for more than 24 children. Still, as of June 20, 482 caseworkers had more than 24 children to look after and 77 caseworkers carried caseloads of 50+ children.
Turnover is down: Turnover among child-welfare workers, which had crippled the agency, is down. During the first three months of this year, turnover was 7.4 percent statewide, down from 39 percent in 2014.
Statewide call-in system stalled: A statewide call-in system — proposed to ensure that reports of abuse and neglect are not falling through the cracks — is stalled after its roll out produced more calls than Social Services could handle. The system covers only half the state and is inefficient, critics say.
New leadership praised: Susan Alford, who has been Social Services director for 1 1/2 years, has been widely praised for her efforts to rebuild the agency.
Third in a monthly series: A decade after the Great Recession, South Carolina state government is reeling. Why? And what can be done?