- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The workers who are supposed to protect South Carolina’s most vulnerable children have been burdened with heavy caseloads for years, contributing to chronic high turnover in the Department of Social Services.

That’s according to a review of data The Associated Press received through a public records request.

Senators investigating the department say its top priority should be a speedy increase in the number of child welfare caseworkers to prevent future tragedies.

Agency officials released their plan for doing so Thursday, a day before explaining it to the Senate panel. The $6.4 million plan calls for adding 221 child welfare positions this fiscal year, including eight supervisors and 67 assistants, and giving all county caseworkers and supervisors a 10 percent pay raise.

But a revolving door of workers who quickly burn out in the high-stress job could make it difficult for the agency to boost its ranks.

For years, former Director Lillian Koller insisted she didn’t need additional money or manpower.

Her predecessor, Kathleen Hayes, had warned legislators that their deep, recession-era budget cuts would hurt efforts to protect children. But when Koller took over in 2011, she dismissed any question about shortages while setting ambitious goals for remaining staff.

Gov. Nikki Haley had steadfastly supported her Cabinet pick. But Koller resigned in June under mounting, bipartisan pressure from lawmakers. An agency audit is expected to be released Friday before the Senate hearing.

Deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter acknowledges turnover is a problem.

“We know this is a high-demand, high-stress position,” she recently told the AP, estimating that South Carolina’s turnover rate for child welfare workers is consistent with the national turnover of between 30 and 40 percent annually.

According to an analysis of DSS caseload data, roughly one-third of the 800 child welfare employees listed on a June 2011 spreadsheet of active cases statewide remained on the active roll three years later, suggesting a two-thirds turnover in that time.

During that same time, the number of workers responsible for more than 50 children increased.

The number of active caseworkers fell from 793 to 670 from June 2011 to 2013, then rose in 2014. DSS officials caution the “point-in-time” lists don’t account for employees on extended leave or not assigned a case because they’re in training, or those promoted to supervisor.

Still, there’s a troubling lack of continuity for children in traumatic situations, said Sue Berkowitz of Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

“Because there’s so much turnover and so much randomness and who’s touching the file next, that’s causing terrible problems. You can’t do that with kids,” she said. “All because there was this policy up top that said, ‘We are not going to ask for more resources.’”

Agency leaders say Senate hearings have focused too much on caseload numbers. But such questioning largely stemmed from Koller’s insistence that caseworkers were responsible on average for only six cases. Her assertion infuriated senators who said it didn’t match agency data or complaints they heard from constituents. Acting director Amber Gillum has since told senators she can’t explain Koller’s numbers.

Under its improvement plan, detailed last month, the agency would hire 109 caseworkers to meet a goal of 24 children per worker for most types of cases and a 20:1 ratio for foster care.

But high workloads can hide in averages. In May, each caseworker on average was responsible for 15 cases involving 27 children. Actual workloads, however, varied from one child to 106.

In the previous three years of Koller’s tenure, the average hovered around the stated goal of 24, according to spreadsheets comparing the same day in 2011, 2012, and 2013. However, scores of workers were handling more than 50 children on those days. One Lexington County worker was juggling 86 cases involving 215 children.

Hanak-Coulter said the agency now is transferring cases across county lines to help distribute individual workloads. Asked about the wide caseload differences within counties, she said those distributions will remain a local decision. On a single day last month, for example, workers in Richland County were overseeing between two and 108 children.

“That will always remain a local decision because I won’t ever know the strengths of each individual worker and the complexity of families,” Hanak-Coulter said. She added that agency is working on providing counties “tools” to better allocate cases.

Last month, senators directed Gillum to find a way to begin hiring those 109 caseworkers immediately, rather than wait until after next year’s budget is approved, as the agency had planned.

The agency’s new plan to add 221 workers this year includes 50 caseworkers the Legislature authorized in the current budget. So far, 17 of those positions have been filled, Gillum said Thursday.

The planned hires still won’t restore child welfare staff to pre-recession levels.

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