- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday named a former director at South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice as her choice to lead the troubled Department of Social Services.

Haley’s announcement of Susan Alford comes six months after the departure of former Director Lillian Koller, who resigned amid bipartisan calls for her ousting.

Alford takes over Jan. 5 from acting director Amber Gillum, who reverts to her role as deputy director. Alford’s salary will match Koller’s at $155,000, according to Haley’s office.

Alford, 60, of Irmo, has been the director of The Girls Center at Clemson University since 2007. According to its website, the center is a research hub for issues such as teen pregnancy and poor self-esteem, in an effort to prevent girls from becoming dependent, arrested or victims of abuse. Alford was previously at DJJ for nearly 14 years in various director roles. Before that, she was a director at the state’s probation and parole agency for six years. Her career started as a probation and parole counselor for youth in Lexington County.

“I can think of no mission that is more important than the mission of the Department of Social Services, and that’s to protect children, the elderly and strengthen families in our state,” Alford said. “It’s a mission that’s of the heart; it’s certainly close to my heart.”

Alford’s nomination still faces confirmation by the Senate, a process that could bring more scrutiny than usual. A bipartisan Senate panel has been investigating the agency’s problems since January. Hearings focused on the deaths of several children, caseloads that climbed above 100 children for some workers and excessive turnover.

For years, Koller insisted she didn’t need additional money or manpower. But Haley said Monday her budget proposal for 2015-16 will include more resources for DSS.

In October, the agency released an improvement plan that included adding 221 child welfare positions this fiscal year. As of last week, the agency had hired 250 people, but 139 people had left, for a net gain of 111 child welfare workers, Gillum told senators last week.

“I do think we’re turning a corner, and I thank you for that,” Sen. Joel Lourie, a Democratic member of the panel, told Gillum after her progress report.

GOP Sen. Katrina Shealy, another panelist, earlier this month introduced a bill that would shrink DSS’s duties, so that it focuses entirely on protecting abused and neglected South Carolinians. The agency’s other duties, such as food stamps and welfare payments, would be transferred to the state’s Medicaid agency.

Haley said Monday she’s not necessarily opposed to the idea, but her office wants to study it further.

Haley had refused for months to fire Koller as she dismissed the criticism as election-year politics. Koller resigned a day before the Senate was expected to take up a no-confidence vote on her leadership.

Haley also announced that the director of the state’s labor and business licensing agency will move over to DSS as Alford’s special assistant. Holly Pisarik will earn $115,000 in her new role, according to the governor’s office. That means she’s taking a $10,000 pay cut. Last week, Haley announced that the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation was getting a new director but declined then to say where Pisarik, director since 2012, was going.

“Because this is such a big task, I did not want to send Susan in solo. I have someone who I call my ultimate fix-it person, and that’s Holly,” Haley said. “To have her be the right hand will make for a strong team.”

She referred to Alford, Pisarik, Gillum and deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter as DSS’ four-person leadership team.

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