My first interaction with Susan Alford was in 2015, just after I delivered a scorching list of everything that was wrong with the Department of Social Services to the Senate Oversight Committee. I was fierce in my criticism, having had a less-than-good (translation: really bad) experience with the agency involving a foster child.
Alford, who was just a few months into the job as director of the agency, approached me after the presentation with tears in her eyes. She told me she saw all the things that I saw — and so much more. She shared her commitment to the impossible task of trying to “right” the many wrongs and make a difference for good in the state of South Carolina. She assured me that she was aware of the department’s great degree of brokenness and didn’t sugar coat it at all. In my heart, I wanted to believe her.
I am glad that I did.
Later that year, Director Alford asked me to join about 30 amazing individuals to serve on her newly formed advisory council. This group is comprised of stakeholders from non-profits, universities, partner agencies, churches and other areas that intersect with the agency as clients. We communicate regularly and meet quarterly.
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As a council, we have observed Susan’s faithfulness, commitment and tireless efforts to right the ship, using as many resources as she could gather. Countless recommendations have turned into realities under her leadership. And unfortunately, so many of these accomplishments are overshadowed by uninformed criticism about specific issues.
We’ve also watched and shared her heartbreak over what people in our great state have done to their loved ones. Unfortunately, these horrors are realities — realities that children and vulnerable adults endure every single day. She is no more capable than anyone else of changing the hearts of neglectful and abusive parents, but she would if she could.
We often hear the story about an elderly man flinging starfish back into the ocean. The critics said: “You’ll never make a difference. There are too many.” The man replied, “I made a difference in the life of this one,” as he continued his quest to save one life at a time.
Susan Alford is retiring Monday, after three and a half years at DSS and 40 years working in various capacities with children, victims and adults.
As we move forward without Alford’s guidance, I hope we, as a state with vast resources and good people, step up to help efforts of reform and support leadership in making hard decisions, rather than simply talk about it or complain. I hope qualified, willing individuals with a passion for children step up to accept the role as “life changer.” I hope our law enforcement officers feel protected and supported as they answer the dangerous calls involving children in need. I hope our foster parents and caseworkers find the bravery and compassion needed to step in the breach to rescue and heal our most vulnerable children.
Almost everything on that list has been fixed, including shortening the time it takes to become a licensed foster parent and partnering with outside agencies to help accomplish buy-in for large-scale community projects.
And that scorching list I read to the lawmakers? Almost everything on there has been fixed, including streamlining and shortening the time it takes to become a licensed foster parent and partnering with outside agencies to help accomplish buy-in for large-scale community projects. Susan Alford also has overseen the upcoming implementation of a new computerized child-support distribution system, which had languished for years. And she has done all this while creating an administration built around transparency — something the agency rarely if ever had before.
As citizens of South Carolina, we owe a genuine, heartfelt “thank you” to Director Alford for her service: for her commitment to righting the wrongs of the agency she inherited, attempting to turn the battleship in the bathtub and making changes that are making a difference — one life and one case at a time.
Ms. Kelley is a Greenville business executive who serves on the DSS Advisory Council; contact her at email@example.com.