- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 9, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Officials at the Department of Social Services said Tuesday that the agency’s steps to improve include working more closely with South Carolina law enforcement, creating a second shift of child welfare workers and sharing caseloads between adjacent counties.

The agency’s acting and deputy directors updated reporters three months after former Director Lillian Koller resigned amid escalating, bipartisan calls for her ousting.

An audit of the agency, requested by legislators, is expected in the coming weeks. The director of the Legislative Audit Council, Perry Simpson, said Monday that its report is in the draft stage.

The Cabinet agency has become a central issue in Gov. Nikki Haley’s re-election bid, as a Senate panel investigating the department focused on the deaths of several children in DSS care. Haley had repeatedly backed Koller but accepted her resignation a day before senators planned to take up a no-confidence resolution. DSS has been featured in campaign ads by both Haley’s Democratic challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, and petition candidate Tom Ervin, who said he entered the gubernatorial race because he was angry about DSS.

Also on Tuesday, the National Association of Social Workers’ state chapter endorsed Sheheen, who is from Camden.

In her last appearance before the Senate panel, Koller acknowledged that the caseloads of many social workers who oversee children’s welfare are too large.

Acting director Amber Gillum said Tuesday too much focus has been put on caseload numbers, rather than agency outcomes.

The agency will ask legislators to fund 202 additional employees in 2015-16 to meet new caseload goals of 24 children per employee for most and 20 children per employee in more complicated foster care cases.

“We’re not going to get there overnight,” Gillum said.

The agency’s request includes 81 supervisors - 40 percent of the potentially new employees - to bring the agency to a ratio of one supervisor for every six caseworkers. Deputy director Jessica Hanak-Coulter said those are supervisors who work directly with caseworkers, rather than directors or central staff.

The agency has hired 50 caseworkers over the last few months who are in training, Gillum said.

New employees also include a law enforcement liaison, hired July 2. Jackie Swindler was previously Newberry’s police chief since 1993. Other coordination efforts include two DSS employees now assigned to the State Law Enforcement Division to improve information flow on cases, according to the agency.

Other changes include providing, by month’s end, smart phones to child welfare investigators across the state. The agency is also evaluating what paperwork and other bureaucracy gets in the way of caseworkers concentrating their time on the children they’re assigned. Phase one of those recommendations are set for completion in December.

Gillum said the agency also will start this month releasing information on child fatalities that result from child abuse and neglect, including any action taken by DSS on the child’s behalf.

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