- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Outlining plans to add 221 employees to help protect South Carolina’s abused and neglected children, the acting Department of Social Services director told lawmakers Friday that she is working to make substantial changes without entirely altering the agency’s infrastructure.

“I’m not going to completely restructure the agency right now,” Amber Gillum told a special Senate panel that has been reviewing DSS. “I’ve been really focusing on trying to get staff in the field what they need.”

Gillum took over this summer for Lillian Koller, who for years said the agency didn’t need more money or manpower. Last month, the panel led by Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, asked the department to submit a plan to quickly hire and retain workers in the high-stress, high-turnover jobs, rather than wait until after the next budget is passed.

On Thursday, Gillum released a $6.4 million plan aiming to do just that, saying the agency is streamlining hiring, increasing salaries and creating opportunities for workers to get promoted to leadership positions. The plan is to add 221 employees, including eight supervisors and 67 assistants, positions that Gillum said are designed to free caseworkers from paperwork and other tasks that take their attention away from children.

That hiring will start in November, according to Gillum. County caseworkers and supervisors are getting a 10 percent raise, starting with their Nov. 2 paycheck, boosting a caseworker’s starting salary by $3,140 to $34,580, Gillum said.

Gillum said the agency has already hired 139 child welfare employees since June 2, for a net gain of 74 people after filling vacancies caused by turnover. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, expressed concerns about ongoing retention problems.

“Do you really think we’re going to find 220 qualified people and not lose any people?” she asked Gillum.

Saying perhaps retired caseworkers could be used to ease the transition of new employees, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia, thanked Gillum for her quick response.

“We have done a poor job over the last several years, and it’s about time that we start putting a new sense of energy and urgency into this matter,” Lourie told Gillum.

Of the 221 jobs, 50 are additional caseworkers the Legislature gave the agency permission to hire in the current budget. So far, 17 of those positions have been filled and eight others have been selected for the job.

Koller resigned June 2 amid increasing, bipartisan calls for her departure. Her boss, Gov. Nikki Haley, had staunchly supported Koller for months and the problems at DSS have become an issue in this year’s race for governor.

In a statement, Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor supports the agency’s moves and will include money for them in next year’s budget.

“Making sure we have the right amount of caseworkers and the kind of competitive compensation that will help retain the ones we already have is critical,” Mayer said.

Gillum’s testimony came hours after the release of an audit finding the agency relies heavily on unreliable data, but has failed to ask for extra money and ignores growing problems. The Legislative Audit Council’s report also found that caseloads in the child welfare agency are excessive and that the agency also doesn’t do enough to ensure children in its care are placed in safe homes.

The audit also found that DSS failed to properly investigate allegation of child abuse and the deaths of children in South Carolina.

In response to the audit, DSS said it is aware of problems and welcomes any help it can get.

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Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox and Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.

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