- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The embattled director of South Carolina’s Department of Social Services acknowledged Wednesday that many workers’ caseloads are too large.

Lillian Koller told a Senate panel the agency is working to set practical goals for the number of cases and children a social worker can manage. Meanwhile, she pledges to get a weekly report on employees whose caseloads exceed 30 and says she’ll personally call county directors to ask why.

“There’s no question we have workers who have too many cases,” Koller told a Senate panel investigating the agency. It was her second appearance and the panel’s sixth meeting since January.

Senators repeatedly questioned her about the agency’s reported average of six cases per worker, saying that number doesn’t correspond with what they’ve been told. Employees have complained of high turnover because of the stress of being responsible for up to 100 cases.

Senators browsing a folder of data said it showed few workers with less than 10 cases. DSS did not provide the packet to reporters.

“Let’s don’t play semantics with the numbers,” said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, the panel’s chairman. “We need to know from you as director what the numbers are, and do you need more help?”

Koller said the agency will seek more money next year based on its caseload goals report, which is due to the federal government next month. A draft tentatively limits each worker to no more than 20 cases that require investigation and no more than 26 foster children to oversee, she said. What a worker can handle, she said, depends on the complexity of each case and the worker’s drive.

“We need more caseworkers but that alone won’t solve the caseload numbers,” she said.

She acknowledged that policy was not followed in the case of a 5-month-old boy who died last month after a doctor notified the agency of her concerns about the child. A social worker went to the home a day after DSS received the call but no one was there. Contact wasn’t attempted again until seven days later, then 25 days after that. By then, the child was dead.

Two days before the child died a Richland County deputy arrested the father for assaulting the mother but the sheriff’s office had no knowledge DSS was trying to find the baby, Koller acknowledged.

The tragedy prompted Koller to change agency policy. Law enforcement now must be contacted within 72 hours if a caseworker can’t reach a family that’s been reported to DSS. The agency is also hiring a full-time law enforcement liaison. An internal investigation continues in that case, Koller said.

It was the second Richland County case senators have focused on. Last summer, a 4-year-old Richland County boy was beaten to death after being returned to his parents from foster care.

Last week, Gov. Nikki Haley released her plan for improving child-welfare services in Richland County, which Koller characterized as having chronic issues. The plan involves hiring 20 caseworkers for the county over the next five months. While they’re being trained, the agency is redirecting 20 caseworkers from 11 other counties.

“The purpose is to not allow Richland to continue to spiral down, to shore them up,” Koller said.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, questioned whether Haley’s plan will further burden already-overloaded caseworkers in the other counties.

“I agree Richland County has a problem. But we can’t take people from other counties and move them to Richland when other counties are struggling,” she said.

Shealy and the panel’s Democrat, Sen. Joel Lourie, are among those calling for Koller’s resignation. Haley has repeatedly backed her.

Young said the panel will meet again in two weeks.

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