- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Caseworkers will be able to access children’s files on their smartphones while away from the office starting next year, thanks to a grant announced Wednesday to the Department of Social Services.

The $250,000 grant will fund the development of an app allowing access to the agency’s network, spokeswoman Karen Wingo told The Associated Press.

It’s among $4.8 million in grants the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation awarded to 13 groups.

Currently, caseworkers cannot access a child’s complete file while visiting a family and must return to their office to document that visit. The agency estimates caseworkers spend more than half of their working hours on paperwork.

“Caseworkers at DSS have very demanding jobs, and must balance a number of administrative tasks with their primary goal,” DSS Director Susan Alford said in a statement. The app will “reduce time-consuming tasks associated with more manual methods of data collection and management.”

DSS is piloting the app in Greenville, York and Lee counties - chosen for their differing sizes. Officials expect the counties’ more than 150 caseworkers to be using the app by May 2017. The contract bidding process alone could take three months, Wingo said.

If the app provides the expected improvements, the agency will include a statewide expansion in its budget proposals, she said.

The announcement comes days after DSS agreed to settle a federal lawsuit that accused the agency of endangering the nearly 3,400 abused and neglected children in its care. The potential settlement, which still requires a judge’s approval, includes a commitment to lower social workers’ caseloads, do a better job investigating abuse allegations, and increase face-to-face visits between caseworkers and children.

The issues addressed by the settlement have been scrutinized by state legislators since January 2014.

Caseworkers were provided smartphones later that year.

Alford, who took the helm in February 2015, said signing the settlement represents the next step in the agency’s ongoing reforms.

The budget legislators passed a year ago provided DSS money to add 177 caseworkers and 67 caseworker assistants.

The budget sent to Gov. Nikki Haley last week provides DSS the additional $5.6 million that Alford requested to hire 170 more employees.

That includes 35 additional caseworkers, 52 regional call center operators, 19 for foster home licensing and 51 people to add second- and third-shifts in some counties, Wingo said Wednesday.

Last year, Alford put a hold on regionalizing call centers until the agency could boost its ranks. Cases had skyrocketed in the 20 regionalized counties partly because callers could actually get someone on the phone to report suspected abuse.

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